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As elections near, a restive Tampa City Council flexes its muscles | Editorial
Some want to rebalance power with the mayor.
Tampa CIty Council member Orlando Gudes rises during an angry exchange with council chairperson Joseph Citro last month.
Tampa CIty Council member Orlando Gudes rises during an angry exchange with council chairperson Joseph Citro last month. [ City of Tampa ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 7, 2022

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor filed for reelection last week and if history is any guide, she should cruise to a second term. But irrespective of Castor’s re-election prospects, municipal elections in March could bring a new power struggle to City Hall.

Castor, who turns 62 today, is a Democrat and former Tampa police chief who captured 73% of the vote in the 2019 mayoral runoff election. As the first woman named to be Tampa’s chief of police, she was widely credited for overseeing a drop in violent crime and for making the police force more community-oriented. Few incumbent mayors in modern history have faced a serious challenge to reelection, and with the deadline to qualify Jan. 20, no major opponent has emerged and only two little-known candidates have filed paperwork so far.

But multiple candidates have already filed in five of the seven city council races, and several of those contests promise to be a proxy referendum on the power of the mayor. Two of Castor’s more critical members of council — Orlando Gudes and Lynn Hurtak — have filed to run, while a third, Bill Carlson, said he intends to. They have faulted Castor’s administration over contracts, personnel and other issues, and have moved more assertively lately to impose new checks on Tampa’s strong-mayor form of government.

Over the past several months, Castor’s council critics have advanced a series of changes to Tampa’s city charter that would shift more power from the executive to the legislative branch. Last week, council moved to present several charter changes to the voters in March, which would, among other things, subject the charter to more frequent review, and restrict the mayor’s latitude in making top staff appointments.

Council members have fought the mayor over several high-profile issues, from spending on an East Tampa city annex to the handling of a West Tampa development deal. The council also split on Castor’s appointment this year of Mary O’Connor as police chief, and it has channeled the concerns of some environmental groups in opposing the mayor’s plan to convert treated wastewater into a more useful water source.

It’s unclear whether the mayor’s forced resignation of O’Connor on Monday over the chief’s involvement in a Pinellas County traffic stop will prompt a mayoral challenger to step forward, or whether voters will see Castor’s move as timely and decisive. Either way, it has already emboldened some of her critics to call for closer scrutiny of the mayor’s agenda and decision-making. Council members have sometimes been petty and self-serving in airing their grievances. And the criticism of Castor by some has sharply divided the board, which seems as riven by personal disputes as policy differences.

It was inescapable that council’s friction with the mayor would evolve into a debate over changing the charter, the city’s foundational document for governing. There’s nothing wrong with council asserting itself, and it’s not unusual for members to test the boundaries of a mayor entering his or her final term. But will voters see this is an issue of checks and balances, or of protecting turf? What about more substantive issues, like crime, growth, housing and infrastructure? And are council critics preparing to tussle with the mayor more often, or to heighten the stakes? These questions seem destined to shape not only the mayor’s race but the politics at City Hall for the next four years.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.