TAMPA — Graft and corruption. Good old boy network. A budget stuffed with fluff and waste.
As the campaign to replace term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn grinds on toward the March 5 election, a portrait of a clubby city ruled by personal connections has emerged from the candidates' responses at forums and their own campaign messages.
At a well-attended South Tampa forum at the end of January, the seven candidates were asked if Tampa has a good old boy network. Four of them — City Council member Harry Cohen, former county commissioner Ed Turanchik, branding consultant Topher Morrison and retired banker and philanthropist David Straz — said yes.
Some were more emphatic than others.
"Damn right there's a good old boy network going on here," said Morrison, who said his "lack of financial hooks" make him an ideal candidate.
Turanchik said he has witnessed an erosion of “good government’’ since his time on the county commission in the 1990s. He noted that his ferries to MacDill Air Force Base still aren't running — a project shelved last year by commissioners — and said ideas are embraced depending on who you know.
"There's an awful lot of grudge-holding going on," he said. "I hate that stuff."
Cohen put it bluntly: "There is a good old boys network and we all know that."
Cohen pointed to a letter sent by a former Solid Waste employee to his office alleging favoritism and abuse, which he turned over to Buckhorn's chief of staff for investigation. It was apparently similar to one sent days earlier to Straz, who declined to identify the department and did not turn it over to the city.
Cohen has called for an independent body to be formed to investigate abuse claims.
"You can't have the fox guarding the hen house," Cohen said at the Jan. 30 forum. He's repeated that idea at several forums since.
Straz has been most forceful about his belief that City Hall is dirty enough to require his broom, a prominent campaign symbol, to clean it out.
"There sure as hell is," Straz said about the existence of an insider club running the city. "It's no way to run a business."
Straz has recently backed away from claims of widespread "graft and corruption," but has maintained that the city is a closed book with a $1 billion budget full of "fluff and waste." When asked at two recent forums in West Tampa and the Tampa Tiger Bay Club to identify specific examples, he declined.
"There's always some fluff and some waste," he said at the Tiger Bay meeting. He has said he'll conduct a citywide audit if elected.
Former police chief Jane Castor, the only woman in the race, hasn't joined the chorus, though she did agree with Cohen that an independent investigatory body is needed.
Retired Judge Dick Greco Jr., the son of former mayor Dick Greco, said the perception of a good old boy network is real but a closed circle of fat cats doesn't exist.
The issue came up again recently at a forum in Forest Hills when the candidates were asked if Tanja Vidivoc's successful discrimination lawsuit against Tampa Fire Rescue in 2017 warranted a clean-up of that department.
Vidovic, a firefighter, sued the city in 2016 claiming sexual harassment and discrimination. She was fired the next day.
Castor said the department needs to hire more women.
"There was no accountability until it got way, way, way too far," Castor said at the Feb. 12 forum. "As mayor, I will hold people accountable."
Other candidates largely agreed with her. Morrison said he would demand the resignation of firefighters who were involved in the Vidovic case. Straz cited it as another example of the "good old boys network" at City Hall. Cohen said the city's policies need to reflect an "evolving society."
City Council member Mike Suarez, who has been endorsed by the firefighters union, took a different tack. The real culprit, he said, was the city's Human Resources Department, which is repsonsible for making sure city employees are protected.
That department should have brought disciplinary charges against firefighters if warranted before Vidovic filed the lawsuit, which led to an award of $245,000 in damages, he said. He pledged a house cleaning of HR employees if he becomes mayor.
Greco Jr. suggested better hiring practices and education would improve the culture in city government while Turanchik pledged to hire a diversity and inclusion officer to make sure the city enters the "21st century."
"Tampa was just wrong," Turanchik said.