TAMPA — The turkey and roast beef sandwiches were a hit. So were the snack packs of chips.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller paid for the modest lunch, which he hoped would do more than quell stomach rumbles. Wednesday’s “chew and chat," he said, was intended to mend frayed fences between the county and Tampa Bay's largest city as Mayor Jane Castor and four new council members begin four-year terms.
"We've just never been as close as I'd like with the mayor and City Council," Miller said. "Going back years, it's been 'Who's going to do what.' "
So for an hour, in a conference room on the 26th floor of the County Building, Castor, council members, county commissioners and county staff mingled, chatted and avoided discussing anything that would violate Florida's Sunshine Law.
As far as anyone can remember, such a gathering had never happened before.
Miller reminded everyone that they couldn't discuss public business without breaking Florida law. No minutes were taken and no agenda posted. The public was invited, at least officially, as both the county and city met the legal requirements for advance notice of the gathering. No one popped in off the street to chew and chat, though.
For about an hour, the group talked about children, friends and got to know each other (though as council member Guido Maniscalco pointed out, everyone pretty much knows everyone else from prior campaigns, service on boards and commissions and just being political animals in the same ecosystem.)
But everyone seemed to agree a little face time never hurts.
"The city and county have to work together. Why not be friendly with one another?" noted council member Joe Citro.
Charlie Miranda has been on City Council on and off since the early 1970s. He said politicians suffer from the same disconnect afflicting everyone these days.
"Everything is by computer. You don't talk to anyone face to face. Nobody knows the people who live on their block," Miranda said. "You have to know each other before you can agree on anything."
County Administrator Mike Merrill said he looked forward to working with Castor, who, like him, comes from an administrative background. County-city relations have been improving for years, but he thought Castor would be a particularly good match.
"We're probably closer in approach," he said, though he praised former mayor Bob Buckhorn's efforts to find common ground.
The county and city have a lot of overlapping duties, ranging from transportation, land use and water resources to regional issues such as the fate of the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Now, Stu Sternberg? Him I've not met," Maniscalco said of the Rays principal owner. "You always knew where to find George Steinbrenner. At the IHOP on Dale Mabry about 5:30 in the evening. He'd get the sirloin and eggs."