Buckhorn the blunt

Talking with the mayor of Tampa as he approaches the end of his first year in office.

Considered a long shot to succeed Pam Iorio when he entered the race for mayor of Tampa last year, Bob Buckhorn succeeded with a little luck (Jim Davis’ withdrawal) and a lot of hard work (26,000 doors knocked on, he’s fond of reminding you). Although he was best known in the late ’90s for his morally scolding stance on adult nightclubs, he was a happier warrior on the stump in 2010, earning a critical endorsement from the Tampa Bay Times for having “matured into a thoughtful leader.”

Now, 10 months into his term, Buckhorn is settling into the role he pursued for decades. Although planning for August’s Republican National Convention dominates the agenda at City Hall, he is following through on some of the promises he made in last year’s campaign — such as an upcoming committee report on the city’s onerous permitting processes. And in a recent sit-down with CL, he pulled no punches when talking about City Council, the recent renewed interest in Cuba, or those who say he’s not doing enough to address the homeless issue.

With Tampa’s strong mayor form of government, City Council members aren’t allowed to go beyond certain parameters. But in his time on the Council (1995-2003), Buckhorn tested that premise. An outspoken critic of Dick Greco, he questioned the mayor’s use of the Community Investment Tax in 2001 and decried the Steve LaBrake scandal in 2002.

Now that he’s mayor, however, he’s quick to point out the divisions of labor at City Hall. When Dennis O’Hara from the Finance Department went before the Council to ask for funding to purchase a property, Councilmember Lisa Montelione questioned how the administration could make such a request when, in response to Council’s inquiries about homeless programs, “We’re told we don’t have money in the budget.”

When asked to comment, Buckhorn responds firmly. “The City Council should stay on the legislative side of the aisle, and let me run the day-to-day operations. It’s not their job, it’s not their expertise. They don’t know what goes into that process.”

Warming up, the mayor reiterates the pecking order. “Their job is rule-making: zoning, land use, approval of the budget, alcoholic beverages. They’re perfectly entitled to question whatever they want, but they’re not involved in the day-to-day decision-making.”

The mayor sounded off on a number of other issues, including trade, during a recent lunch with CL at Mise en Place. Buckhorn has traveled to Panama and Israel to attract new business, but he isn’t impressed by the surge of support for more ties with Cuba. Both Congresswoman Kathy Castor and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce plan to travel to Cuba in coming months.

“I think there’s a lot of hype,” he says about the burgeoning interest in Cuba. Comparing it to the buzz that greets a new girl in high school, Buckhorn says the island nation has no money, sounding like he’s channeling hard-liner Ralph Fernandez. As for the Chamber’s visit, he says they’re going because “people are bending their ear, telling them that this is the promised land, and it’s not.” (Officials at Tampa International Airport might disagree. By adding four flights weekly to two Cuban cities, they project to make $657,000 this year.)

Another issue that fires up the 53-year-old chief executive is homelessness, or to be more accurate, the criticism that his administration isn’t doing enough about the crisis. Since October, the number of people soliciting for money at some of the city’s busiest traffic intersections has decreased dramatically, following passage of an ordinance that banned panhandling every day but Sunday, except for newspaper sales.

Before the panhandling ordinance went into effect, a group of private citizens and public officials convened to study how communities near and far have dealt with the homeless issue. Some of those officials, like Dr. Jason Wilson and City Councilman Harry Cohen, say they’d like to create a facility similar to Safe Harbor in Pinellas County, which houses hundreds of the homeless, and are researching how to do that.

Buckhorn said that work is continuing, but he doesn’t appreciate it when councilmembers take on staffer Tom Snelling about the lack of visible progress.

“You can’t solve it in 30 minutes every other Thursday,” he says, taking a swipe at recent complaints. “This is a complicated problem. It’s not nearly the case of running out and finding a vacant house and sticking people in there with no predicate being laid, no budget being laid. City Council is not going to be involved in the creation of a homeless center.” Part of Buckhorn’s reluctance to commit city resources is that, for decades now, social services have not been the responsibility of the city of Tampa. They’ve been under the directive of Hillsborough County, which has done nothing concrete on the homeless issue for several years.

“We’re going to do this right,” Buckhorn maintains. “You’ve got to be methodical about this, you gotta bring all the social services to bear, none of which we control. None of it. I don’t have any social service involvement at all, so for me to be even engaged in this is a stretch beyond what mayors have done before that. And I’m willing to do that, but we’re going to do it right.”

Preparing for tens of thousands of delegates, reporters and protesters for a single week is also something no previous Tampa mayor has ever undergone. But Buckhorn feels confident about preparations for the Republican National Convention, six months out.

He does express regret about some of the more provocative comments he’s made about potential protesters. (At a Tiger Bay event in St. Pete last fall, he said that Tampa would be host to “every wingnut and lunatic” around.) But he’s proud that he never allowed Occupy Tampa protesters to sleep overnight inside a city-controlled park, unlike the cities that did allow such encampments and have now cleared them out.

The ACLU’s John Dingfelder has been meeting with Buckhorn to discuss the rules regarding public demonstrations. Dingfelder says it’s “essential” that protest routes be within sight and sound of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, adding that he’s pleased that the mayor is “taking a proactive approach to meeting these important needs.”

No doubt the mayor is doing everything in his power to make the Republicans’ party in late August a smashing success, and that success will depend greatly on how his police department handles the thousands of protesters. Because, to paraphrase the chants of demonstrators in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention, the whole world will be watching.

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