By blocking a public vote on police transparency, Tampa officials have shunned democracy

Councilmen Maniscalco, Viera, Citro and Miranda were against letting people vote on increased police oversight.

click to enlarge From left to right: Councilmen Joe Citro, Charlie Miranda, Guido Maniscalco, Luis Viera - City of Tampa
City of Tampa
From left to right: Councilmen Joe Citro, Charlie Miranda, Guido Maniscalco, Luis Viera
There are endless political disputes in this country, and a vast majority of them are handled via the ballot box. Voting is a key aspect of any democracy, and Americans often refer to places that don't let people vote as being run by authoritarians.

But Mayor Jane Castor's administration, along with four councilmen, don't want Tampa citizens to vote—specifically about police transparency.

At a meeting yesterday, Joseph Citro, Guido Maniscalco, Charlie Miranda and Luis Viera sided with Castor in denying the public a chance to vote on whether Tampa's Police Citizen Review Board (CRB) should have subpoena power to obtain its own evidence.

The public and several civil rights groups have demanded subpoena power for seven years, only to be met by opposition from police and the past two mayors at every turn. The no votes from the councilmen cast aside those voices, and the measure failed 3-4 on the city council floor. (A separate measure that could let voters decide on an independent attorney for the CRB passed at the meeting.)
Council’s decision came after Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor and Senior Assistant City Attorney Megan Newcomb, who works under Castor, lobbied each city council member against letting the public vote.

On top of the lobbying from the administration, the are signs that the city and TPD interfered with the local democratic process.

In July, the CRB recommended that council ask city legal to draft an ordinance that would ask voters in a March 2023 election whether or not the board should have subpoena power and independent counsel. Council voted 5-1 in support of the CRB’s request, with only Citro voting no (Viera was absent).

But there’s no indication that city legal drafted the ordinance language. The city didn't present it at the meeting yesterday, it's nowhere to be found in the meeting documents, and the city has not responded to the question of if it started creating the ordinance at all.

Instead, council had to vote again yesterday, on a matter they had already decided on three months ago—but this time after being lobbied by Chief O’Connor and city staff.

So, what changed between those meetings? What made Maniscalco and Miranda in particular flip their votes?
City council elections are coming up next spring, and council members had Castor's administration, Chief O'Connor and the Police Benevolent Association (PBA)—all powerful players in city politics—laying on the pressure.

PBA Vice President Brandon Barclay showed up to yesterday's meeting to falsely claim that the CRB didn't want subpoena power, even though they had voted to recommend that council put it on the ballot.

O'Connor, who worked under Castor at TPD, told city council members during private meetings that giving the review board subpoena power could decrease morale at the department. But in what kind of police department does increased transparency lead to decreased morale? And shouldn’t the city’s largest department, which has a massive budget, be the most transparent?

Earlier this year, Castor herself called for increased transparency from city council members after John Dingfelder was removed from office following a public records lawsuit. And the mayor’s own forum on policing saw TPD getting a failing score for trust and transparency.

Orlando Gudes, the only former cop on city council, argued for transparency during yesterday’s meeting and said that what boosts morale is money. Tampa cops got an 18.5% raise this year, even though the department has been riddled with controversy in recent years.

O’Connor also told council members that it was fringe groups who were asking for police transparency.

But in fact, those asking for transparency were constituents from all walks of life and local chapters of nationally-respected organizations with more than a century of collective experience fighting for the rights of everyday people—including the NAACP and the ACLU.
Over and over again, public speakers at yesterday's meeting referenced the importance of the democratic process.

"We believe that if this city is to move forward, why not trust the voters?" said Connie Burton, longtime local activist and member of NAACP. "Why not trust the voters and put it on the ballot to ensure that we can guarantee trust and accountability?"

"It's kind of insane that this is such a big debate when really we're just asking you to let us vote," Taylor Cook, a local student and member of Tampa Bay Community Action Committee told council. "I don't understand how we're supposed to be a progressive forward city when we have to beg to be able to vote on an issue that people care about."

A vast majority of the speakers asked city council to be able to vote. A 2021 poll showed that more than 80% of Tampeños wanted to vote on subpoena power for the CRB, too.

But Kimberly Hindman from the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office and retired Judge E.J. Salcines spoke last during public comment to warn of unintended consequences of giving the review board subpoena power.

However, they didn't say outright that the public shouldn't be able to vote on it. And they also couldn't answer why subpoena power for review boards has not been a problem in multiple other cities and counties in Florida, including: Miami-Dade County, Key West, Orange County, and Broward County.

The council members who voted no on subpoena power also cited potential legal issues with subpoena power, but didn't want to take the first step in figuring out those issues, even though multiple City of Tampa boards and city council already have subpoena power.

The council vote yesterday would've been just the first step toward letting people vote on the issue. The city legal team would still have to draft the ordinance, and bring it before council two more times before final approval, meaning any legal issues could be hashed out before going to the voters.

Viera, Citro, Miranda and Maniscalco have not responded to request for comment.
Only council members Gudes, Lynn Hurtak and Bill Carlson thought it was important to take a step toward letting voters have their voices heard yesterday.

Their yes votes came during yesterday’s charter amendment workshop, where they were also the only ones to vote yes on potential changes to the city charter that could give city council more leverage, while still maintaining Tampa's long standing strong mayor form of government. The workshop came after a tumultuous year of what city council members, and several local leaders, have called attacks from Castor's administration.

Still, Maniscalco, Viera, Citro and Miranda voted no on even starting to explore any of the potential charter changes that the mayor might see as oppositional.

The control that Mayor Castor and TPD have over our local democracy should alarm the citizens of Tampa who believe in protecting their rights, no matter what a person's stance is on subpoena power.

Robin Lockett, Regional Director of Florida Rising, a nonprofit that encourages voter participation said that it's incredible that some local elected officials, in just a few months, will go out and encourage the citizens to vote for them, while stifling the voices of so many citizens.

"It's the people who elected the council members, the same people they're now telling they can't vote," Lockett said. "When election time comes, we are the ones who choose to elect them again or not. And when it comes time to vote on that, they can run but they can't hide."

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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