Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, a councilman, and the media clash over transparency at press conference

The conference occurred as tensions rise between the administration and city council.

click to enlarge Mayor Jane Castor during an exchange with a reporter during a press conference. - JUSTIN GARCIA
Justin Garcia
Mayor Jane Castor during an exchange with a reporter during a press conference.
This afternoon, Mayor Jane Castor clashed with the media during a press conference at Tampa City Hall. Afterwards, a city councilman told press that Castor's administration is targeting council members.

Castor called the press conference to address transparency and accountability issues, following recent trouble at city council. A press release sent during the presser added that Castor will also call to "improve lobbyist registrations and disclosures, conflict of interest reporting by elected officials and [modernize] Tampa’s system for sharing public records."

Last month, councilman John Dingfelder resigned following a public records request lawsuit that found he may have violated a public records law and used his position for personal gain. And last week, Orlando Gudes stepped down as council chair after an investigation concluded that inappropriate behavior and offensive comments created a hostile work environment for his legislative aide.

"As we all know, we've had a turbulent few weeks on city council," Castor said. She went on to describe the recent chaos, and added "I want to be very clear. These incidents were not caused by the City of Tampa. These incidents, these scandals were the work of John Dingfelder and Orlando Gudes."
The mayor said that the city is working on increasing its transparency because of the incidents, with more public records education to come for everyone who works at the city.

During the meeting, a reporter asked why the administration had moved away from its pursuit of the Gudes' accusers claims in 2020 and then re-visited the case in August of 2021, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

"As matter of fact, that headline in the Tampa times was untrue," Castor said. The headline read: City of Tampa had previously dropped a misconduct case against Orlando Gudes.

Castor went on to say that the aide did approach the administration. The mayor then pivoted to her years as a cop to explain the situation.

"Having been in law enforcement for 31 years and now in this position for three years, one thing I do know is that in these types of instances in harassment and stalking, in sexual assaults, that you have to give the authority to the victim, let them be in control of the situation," Castor said. "This particular victim wanted to keep her job and she felt that she could handle the situation on her own. When she returned to HR, she revealed in detail what had happened."

But documentation of the entire Gudes investigation, which spans over 340 pages—as opposed to the initial 60-page recap the administration released to the press—shows that the victim did not approach the administration when the allegations resurfaced in 2021.

In fact, the administration approached her multiple times in August of 2021. And some of the documentation shows the victim asking the administration to stop.

“I do not wish to continue with this investigation I have informed city of Tampa at HR that I am leaving and I do not want to do this anymore please stop,” a Nov. 3, 2021 email reads.

According to the Times report, city officials, including Grimes, human resources director Kelly Austin and chief of staff John Bennett discussed how to handle potential fallout of having previously vetted the victim's complaints and taking no action beyond “coaching” her on her concerns. “We control disclosure of 2020. We don’t want her to say we did nothing,” one note from the meeting says.

Castor referenced Times reporter Charlie Frago by name when she said his report was wrong. Frago responded to her claim with more questions.

"Mayor, how do you explain the email she sent to Trenam attorneys asking to please stop the investigation. 'Please stop.' How do you how do you fit that into what you've just said?" he asked.

This led to a heated exchange about the context of the administration's report, how Frago was included in it, and how he still had unanswered questions from the administration.

Castor claimed that some in the media have re-victimized Gudes' victim by reporting on the entire situation. But City of Tampa Communications Director Adam Smith did not have a clear answer when WTSP's Emerald Morrow asked why the administration more or less identified the victim when a press release included their gender and position at the city.
click to enlarge Tampa's Communications Director Adam Smith answers questions from the media. - JUSTIN GARCIA
Justin Garcia
Tampa's Communications Director Adam Smith answers questions from the media.

This CL reporter asked Castor if the city attorney's office would also receive extra training in public records law, since City Attorney Gina Grimes' used her personal cellphone to communicate with Ethan Loeb who was part of the legal team that ultimately sued Dingfelder into resignation.

The city attorney's office has confirmed that it was because of Grime's personal cellphone use that certain public records are missing completely from the city's files, which goes against Chapter 119 of the public records law. Castor also said this was "not accurate."

"It's not the device. It's the proper and timely response to the request for the files," Castor said.

But the city, which is required to have the files, actually did not have them in its possession because they were unretrievable. Instead, the files requested had to be provided by the very developer who sued Dingfelder.
On March 31, a lawyer for Gudes' accuser was supposed to address the press, but as media gathered outside his Tampa Heights office, attorney Grady C. Irvin Jr. told those gathered that he just found out he was no longer representing the client. The next day, Loeb's office announced that he would be representing her in the Gudes case instead.

Following Castor's press conference, councilman Bill Carlson approached the media with a statement.
click to enlarge Councilman Bill Carlson speaks to the press about recent events at city hall. - JUSTIN GARCIA
Justin Garcia
Councilman Bill Carlson speaks to the press about recent events at city hall.
"The mayor had a press conference today about transparency and accountability, which I've been calling on for three years," Carlson said, adding that council has also been calling for more transparency.

"But in telling the public and the city council about this press conference, they didn't tell us what it was about, how was that transparent? And what about Hanna Avenue and last week, we asked why a contract went from $1 million to $108 million without an RFP," he added. "And nobody on her staff would answer the question about why that happened."

Carlson went on to claim that the Mayor's administration re-victimized the claimant by publishing identifying information about her, and claimed that doing so is a misdemeanor. He also said the administration leaks stories to certain media outlets in Tampa to target councilman who go against the administration's interests, something he's now claimed multiple times.
When asked for a response from the administration to the claims, Smith said that he has great respect for Carlson and that he was invited to the press conference, adding that, "In terms of leaking stories, nobody's leaking, there are public records requests, we're complying with public records requests, but..."

Smith was interrupted and then asked if he's ever initiated a call to members of the press about Carlson, Gudes or Dingfelder.

"I'm not going to go into my calls...I'm not going to respond," Smith said.

Finally, when asked about why some media outlets seem to receive information from the administration about certain issues right away, such as the Dingfelder lawsuit, while others have public records requests that sit unanswered for longer amounts of time, Smith said that he should be contacted immediately in such cases.

"Nobody's getting special treatment on public records requests, I promise you," Smith said.

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. 

Scroll to read more Tampa Bay News articles
Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at [email protected]