Tampa leaders, former mayor, decry 'unprecedented' friction between Castor and city council

'I have been covering Tampa politics for 40 years and have never seen anything like what is going on at City Hall these days.'

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click to enlarge Mayor Castor discusses transparency and accountability issues at a press conference this week. - Justin Garcia
Justin Garcia
Mayor Castor discusses transparency and accountability issues at a press conference this week.
Local political experts, a former Tampa mayor, and civic leaders are sounding off about the disruptive tension between Mayor Jane Castor's administration and Tampa City Council.

The comments from local leaders come in the wake of former councilman John Dingfelder's resignation over a public records lawsuit, and as Orlando Gudes faces allegations of creating a toxic workplace through caustic, inappropriate, language and behavior.

Meanwhile, the mayor's administration has been accused of practicing questionable political maneuvers against council, using the local media to do so.

"I have watched or covered City Hall since 1988 and have never seen this level of animosity from a mayor toward council members," said Wayne Garcia, an award-winning reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune and Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

Garcia, Master Instructor at USF's Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications, continued, saying that "the whole thing just looks horrible."

"You have only the council members who have opposed the mayor come under this fire, and the private attorney involved shows up in both cases against two different council members, and shows up talking with the City Attorney on the side," he said.

Former Councilman Dingfelder was forced to resign and not speak to the press as part of a public records lawsuit settlement in which City Attorney Gina Grimes refused to represent him, citing his breach of city rules.

Soon after, CL discovered that Grimes used her personal cellphone to communicate with the attorney who sued Dingfelder, Ethan Loeb, and failed to maintain public records in the city's files when she communicated with Loeb's client, developer consultant Stephen Michelini.

Last week, a press conference was canceled on the spot by Grady C. Irvin Jr., the attorney who originally represented Gudes' accuser.  The next day, it was announced that the accuser switched to Loeb, who, according to his website, specializes in complex business litigation

Garcia went on to refer to a presser last Wednesday, where Mayor Castor accused the local media of being inaccurate in its reporting, which led to a heated exchange between reporters and Castor. Councilman Bill Carlson arrived after the mayor left the conference, to accuse the administration of attacking councilmen when they oppose Castor.

"The mayor's news conference this week certainly provided more fodder for those who want to view her as an autocratic ex-police chief with sharp political elbows," Garcia said.

Sandy Freedman was the city's first woman mayor, taking the position over from former mayor Bob Martinez in 1986. Before that, she served on City Council from 1974 and then as Council Chair from 1983-1986. After completing the remainder of Martinez's term, Freedman was twice elected Mayor of Tampa, serving from 1987-1995, so she's seen what it's like to be on both sides of city hall.

"The city council certainly needs to pay close attention to things and they need to speak up when they see something that they don't think feels right, or in the public interest," Freedman told CL. "And on the other side, the mayor's administration itself has to be more transparent and less defensive. The mayor has  to break bread with council members. We can't have our elected officials lashing out at each other."

"We can't have our elected officials lashing out at each other."

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Freedman said she would regularly discuss issues with council during her time as mayor. Meanwhile, multiple Tampa City Council members have claimed that Castor rarely communicates with them, even about important issues.

"Civil discourse only occurs when people have a level of trust. And the only way to build that is to do it quietly," Freedman said.

While Castor's administration has called for transparency and accountability from council, some have pointed out that there needs to be more of that from the administration itself.

Yvette Lewis, President of the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch, said she welcomes open talks with the mayor.

"I was glad to see Mayor Castor finally talk about transparency," Lewis wrote in an email. "It is past time for transparency in this administration. I would like to see transparency in civil rights complaints, employment discrimination, affordable housing, MBE participation, neighborhood development in East Tampa, police misconduct, police lawsuit settlements, and many more. What took so long?"

Patrick Manteiga, editor and publisher of La Gaceta has discussed Tampa politics in his paper for decades, following the tradition of his family, which founded the tri-lingual paper 100 years ago.

"I've never seen the mayor get so involved in city council business, it's unprecedented," said Manteiga. "The mayor says she wants accountability from council, but where was that during her police chief search and appointment of Mary O'Connor? And where was the transparency when the city handed the Hanna Avenue project to a contractor in a private bid?," he questioned.

Councilmen Gudes, Dingfelder and Carlson have been outspoken about the problems with the administration's police chief search and the Hanna Avenue project, which experts say may have violated Florida law when Castor's administration handed over $100 million of city funds to a contractor without a required public bidding process, among other  problems.

"People are saying, 'Stop this fighting', but there's a reason for the fighting, and I haven't seen the administration say, 'We're going to get back in our lane,'" Manteiga told CL.
On the show "WaveMakers" on WMNF, President of Tampa Tiger Bay Club and  long-time Tampa political reporter and editor Tom Scherberger echoed the sentiments of unprecedented levels of conflict at city hall.

"I have been covering Tampa politics for 40 years and have never seen anything like what is going on at city hall these days," Scherberger said during his show. "All three council members also happen to be outspoken critics of Mayor Jane Castor's favorite, but controversial proposals."

Tom's wife, Janet Scherberger, a former reporter at the St. Petersburg Times and communications expert, said that while there have often been issues between council and the mayor, things have reached a new level of animosity.

"Historically, there's been tension between the City of Tampa mayor and council, I think you could say that, frequently, there is some tension there," she said on the air. "It's a strong mayor form of government, and the council has has fairly limited duties. But I think what we seem to be seeing here is just a concerted effort by the administration to attack people and compromise their position on the city council."

Tom agreed that it does seem to be the case, and added that, "It's hard to defend some of the things that have come out regarding Gudes, and it looks like John Dingfelder was sloppy with his public records."

The allegations against Gudes were left alone in 2020 by city staff, but were pursued again by the administration in August of 2021, the same month that Michelini's public records request was submitted to Dingfelder.

CL contacted the city's Communication Director Adam Smith, who questioned if the people who weighed in on this story were fully informed about Dingfelder and Gudes' cases, writing, "Did you share with them the records the explain what happened with John Dingfelder and Orlando Gudes?"

"There is zero animosity from the mayor toward the city council, " Smith continued in his email. "Zero. No one is responsible for scandals circling John Dingfelder and Orlando Gudes except for John Dingfelder and Orlando Gudes."
Stephanie Poynor, President of Tampa Homeowners Association of Neighborhoods (THAN) says that communication and transparency issues from the administration are problems that need to be confronted.

"City council is the red headed step child of the Mayor," Poynor told CL. "They must ask for everything from the Mayor, and she seems to want no interaction with them. You must have give and take.  The Mayor only wants to give information, not take it, from the citizens or Tampa City Council."

Poynor—who was named in Dingfelder's lawsuit—also spoke out on Scherberger's show, saying, "It's really an attack on the neighborhoods, not just necessarily those city councilmen. Large developers have been in charge of the city for many, many years with no voice for the citizens in the neighborhoods."

In February, when Castor said rent stabilization would kill development, CL found that her Tampa Strong PAC is over half funded by development interests.

Since 2019, Poynor has reached out to the mayor and her administration about neighborhood issues several times and said she's never received a response.

"I think that people are human beings and will make mistakes," Poynor said to city council last Thursday. "But when the pot is calling the kettle black, I have some issues with that."

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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