Following Tampa councilman's forced resignation, local leaders allege that he was targeted

'The bullying of our local officials is sickening.'

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click to enlarge John Dingfelder reads a City of Tampa document during a city council meeting in March. - City of Tampa/CCTV
City of Tampa/CCTV
John Dingfelder reads a City of Tampa document during a city council meeting in March.
During a March 17 Tampa City Council meeting, several local leaders alleged that former councilman John Dingfelder was targeted in a political maneuver to force him into resignation.

"I stand here with a heavy heart this morning because of Councilman Dingfelder's resignation, we lost the body that we elected," Stephanie Poynor, President of Tampa Homeowners Association of Neighborhoods (THAN) told council. "The bullying of our local officials is sickening."

Dingfelder submitted his intent to resign last Friday as part of a settlement following six months of litigation in a public records lawsuit filed by local business consultant Stephen Michelini via his attorney Ethan Loeb.

Throughout his years as councilman, Dingfelder was often at odds with the clients of Michelini, which include business and real estate interests in the area. The lawsuit centered around a public records request from Michelini that found Dingfelder was using personal communication platforms to conduct city business.

Dingfelder was forced to represent himself when the city attorney declined to, and after fighting the case using his own financial resources since last October, Dingfelder accepted a settlement last week. As part of the settlement, Dingfelder was forced to resign, the Tampa Bay Business Journal first reported on March 11.

The settlement also restricts Dingfelder from speaking to the press about the situation. County Commissioner Mariella Smith told the Tampa Bay Times that this demand by Michelini's legal team was "hypocritical" because the lawsuit was about government transparency. Smith said that because of that rule, the whole story may never be heard.

But in Dingfelder's absence of comment, others sounded off about his case at the council meeting on Thursday.

"I believe the people behind [the lawsuit] did do that for political reasons, to get his vote silenced," said Jean Strohmeyer, President of Interbay South Of Gandy Neighborhood Association. "And they succeeded in that battle, but not in the war because there's a lot of little soldiers out there that are fighting for our city."

Both Stromheyer and Poynor were named in Dingfelder's lawsuit in text exchanges that seem to show them discussing development issues in the area with the former councilman.

Others have honed in on the issue of Tampa City Attorney Gina Grimes' decision to not represent Dingfelder in the case.

All city council members are clients of the city attorney, but Grimes announced publicly via the Tampa Bay Business Journal on October 7 2021 that the city would not represent Dingfelder if he was sued by Michelini's attorney Ethan Loeb over the public records request.

At the time, she said Dingfelder was complying with the request. Just four days after Grimes' comment to the press, Loeb filed the lawsuit, and Dingfelder had to represent himself.

Local attorney James Michael Shaw Jr. tweeted that the forced resignation of Dingfelder, "sets a terrible precedent for the removal of elected officials by private individuals with personal agendas."

"If not closed off as an option, expect our [city] to employ it again and again, against anyone with the backbone to stand up to them," Shaw wrote. "Tampa City Council should immediately pass an ordinance requiring the City to defend elected officials sued under Chapter 119."

Shaw pointed out that in Sarasota, city commissioners are represented or reimbursed by the city in such lawsuits.

Another member of THAN echoed Shaw's sentiments about the city's obligation to represent councilmen.

"If someone with deep pockets and financial motive threatens our elected officials for doing their job, for listening to the citizens, for representing us...and if pro-citizen, pro-neighborhood, pro-safety councilmen are attacked for doing their job, the citizens want the city to defend that person," said Carroll Ann Bennett, Vice President of THAN, during the council meeting.

Ethan Loeb responded to the allegations via email to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay today.
“It is disheartening to see a few people ignore the real issue in the Dingfelder public records lawsuit.  This case did not involve some grand conspiracy to remove John from public office. The people who speak ill of Steve or the City’s staff should focus on the merits of the lawsuit instead of changing the narrative. The lawsuit we filed was about public records and the failure to preserve and produce them as the law requires. John used a private email account bearing his wife’s name to conduct public business.  Nobody forced John to engage in that activity.  Nobody told John to use his private cell phone to communicate via text message with other elected officials during public meetings.  That was his choice.  Nobody told John to confront Steve at City Hall in connection with the public records request.  Again, that was John’s choice.  John failed to preserve public records on the private accounts and devices that he chose to utilize.  There is a consequence for these actions, and John elected to resign from office instead of answering for his actions in a court of law.  If John used his public email account (as opposed to a private one belonging to his wife) and publicly funded electronic devices (instead of his private cell phone) to communicate about public business, he would still be in office.”
Commisioner Smith posted on her Facebook that the situation with Dingfelder made her think of environmental activist Maggy Hurchalla, who recently passed away and was remembered in a feature story this month by the New York Times. Smith said that activist was also sued by Loeb for contract interference on behalf of a billionaire who wanted to mine for limestone in the Everglades, which NYT wrote a separate article about in 2019.

Loeb also weighed in on this past lawsuit in his email.
“Ms. Hurchalla engaged in a series of lies to harm a business.  The jury, after sitting through a 7 day trial, deliberated for less than two hours and unanimously concluded that Ms. Hurchalla behaved improperly and contrary to the law.  Ms. Hurchalla appealed her verdict all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and she lost every step of the way.   Every appellate judge (including the judges at highest levels of the Florida and United States government) reviewed the evidence and found that the jury was justified in finding that Ms. Hurchalla had engaged in improper conduct.  At bottom, the jury’s verdict sent a very basic message that we were taught as kids…tell the truth!”
In the midst of the heated city council meeting, Councilman Bill Carlson claimed that Mayor Jane Castor's administration practices leaking misleading stories about councilmen when they challenge the administration on issues, and that Dingfelder was no exception.

"Other [council] members here have read negative news that the administration has leaked as well, including about our former council member Dingfelder, who had staff leak something on Monday after he was no longer a city council member," Carlson said.
"When the administration works to sabotage a sitting city council member, or several city council members, if they leak information that causes a city council member to have to resign, that is despicable."

On March 15, after Dingfelder announced his resignation, the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported that Grimes said Dingfelder may have committed city ethics violations, especially a code that prohibits elected officials from representing private individuals if it's a conflicting employment or contractual relationship.

At the council meeting, Poynor claimed that city ethics accusations are supposed to be confidential during investigation, and alleged that the information was leaked to the media by the city's administration.

"The ethics rules state that violations are not to be made public until after the case is closed," Poynor said. "I ask you gentlemen, who released those documents to the public?"

Tampa's Communication Director Adam Smith told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that the city hasn't filed an official ethics violation form. Such a submission could potentially fall under the protections Poynor mentioned, according to city code.

Instead, Smith said the case has been referred by Grimes to outside counsel. Smith did not confirm who that outside counsel is, but after publication of this story he elaborated on why Grimes did not represent Dingfelder.
John Dingfelder is a respected public servant, and he summed up what happened clearly in his letter to Steve Michelini: “All citizens have the absolute right to learn about and promptly discover how elected officials (and all other government employees) discuss, communicate, and debate about matters of public concern. Rather than honor that fundamental right, I engaged in activities that were contrary to the spirit and intent of open government and transparency. I have now come to fully appreciate why the City of Tampa rightfully declined to provide me with representation, at taxpayer expense, in connection with the lawsuit you filed against me.”
Dingfelder's apology letter was required as a condition of the lawsuit settlement.

Smith sent a memo from October 13 in which Grimes explained why the city cannot spend taxpayer money representing individual council members acting outside the scope of their official duties. In the memo, Grimes said she would recommend Dingfelder's legal fees be reimbursed if he prevailed and demonstrated he was in fact following with the law.

City council now has to choose a replacement for Dingfelder's district three at large seat. The city charter allows 30 days for council members to choose. The countdown started on March 14, when Dingfelder officially resigned.

Florida Politics reported that applications for the seat go live via the city's website on Monday, March 21 at noon.

UPDATED: Story updated on 03/21/22 with input from Tampa's Communications Director Adam Smith.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia has written for The Nation, Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, the USA Today Network 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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