TAMPA — Does the next mayor of Tampa need to investigate the influence Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik wields in Florida's third-largest city?
Yes, said retired banker and philanthropist David Straz at a mayoral forum this week at the Bryan Glazer Jewish Community Center in West Tampa.
Vinik’s name came up when moderator Mike Deeson, a former investigative reporter, said he'd been told by West Tampa residents that Vinik "gets everything he wants" from Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration.
What "controls" should be put over the city government's interactions with Vinik, Deeson asked.
After former county commissioner Ed Turanchik said the next mayor should follow an "arms-length relationship" with Vinik, Straz weighed in.
"The Vinik question. Ladies and gentleman, we need more transparency. And that is, what kind of money is going into Channelside? Who's behind the St. Pete (Tampa Bay) Times? Who's behind All for Transportation? Who's behind a number of these things around town? Let's get some transparency and find out what's going on. If you look at some of the blogs you can get a feeling that not everything's great. We need to investigate that much more further," Straz said.
Vinik is one of a group of local investors who loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times, in 2017. He declined comment through a spokesman.
All for Transportation co-founder Kevin Thurman said Straz's comments were "ridiculous," saying that the candidate had not responded to multiple attempts to brief him on the 1-cent transit tax proposal overwhelmingly approved by Hillsborough County voters in November.
Straz has previously said he supported the citizen initiative and voted for it.
"Here’s the deal: you’re never becoming mayor, but you will still live in this city,’’ Thurman wrote in an email. “Apologize to the volunteers, apologize to the people that made this actually happen — the volunteers and activists, please. You are belittling their work."
A Times spokeswoman clarified the relationship between Vinik and the newspaper.
"The Times' relationship with the investors in FBN Partners in no way skews our coverage,’’ spokeswoman Sherri Day wrote in an email. “Jeff Vinik is one of eight investors in FBN Partners. Each investor has an equal share. Except for the Times' Chairman and Chief Executive Paul Tash, none of the partners influence our reporting or editorial views."
Buckhorn criticized Straz's comments in a tweet Tuesday.
"Tell me this is a typo. If not it may rank as one of the most ridiculous statements I have heard to date. Jeff has been nothing but an amazing addition to Tampa," the mayor tweeted.
The Straz campaign released a statement late Monday saying their candidate didn't intend to call for a formal investigation.
"David said to "investigate," meaning to seek information. He did not say "investigation," which implies some formal government action," wrote Straz spokesman Jarrod Holbrook. "David is calling for transparency in all city affairs, including the city's relationship with developers."
After reading about Straz's comments in the Times Tuesday, former Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke contacted the newspaper to defend his former boss, calling him on of the greatest human beings he has ever known. Vinik has spent millions on Tampa Bay charities, Leiweke said.
"That's what great community leaders do," Leiweke said, who is now CEO of NHL Seattle, which will debut a professional hockey team in that city in 2021. He said he was "shocked and disappointed" by Straz's comments.
"We all have bad days," Leiweke said. "I just hope that was what was going on with him."
None of the other candidates at Monday's forum seconded Straz's call. City Council members Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen noted that Vinik's Water Street development lies within a city-and county-designated Downtown Community Redevelopment Area, in which property tax dollars are used for infrastructure improvements within the boundaries of the district. There are several CRAs around the city, including in West Tampa, they said.
The city and county both pledged $50 million each to the Downtown CRA that contains Water Street.
Turanchik, though, said "major clients" of his are reluctant to do business in the city.
"It's an unfair playing surface," he said. "Prejudiced by this relationship."
Former police chief Jane Castor, who has been endorsed by Vinik, agreed with Suarez and Cohen about the legality of the city money going into Vinik's development, but promised he wouldn't get preferential treatment if she's elected mayor.
The candidates covered some new ground during the forum. Straz called for an end to Tampa's red light cameras, calling them a "money-making" scheme. Small business consultant Topher Morrison and Turanchik agreed the program should be revamped.
And a familiar topic resurfaced. After Straz promised to tackle fluff in the city's $1 billion budget, Deeson asked him to identify one city program that could be called fluff.
"I can, but I won't," said Straz, who has previously made claims about "graft and corruption" in city departments without providing details.
"I'm going to call his bluff. I don't think he has one," Morrison said.
"I won't dignify that cheap political comment with even words," Straz said.
"Where's the answer?" quipped Morrison.