Union reps and construction experts decry Tampa city staff for dodging 'City Center' talks

One construction expert even called for the attorney general to get involved.

click to enlarge A construction team works on the City Center at Hanna Avenue project. - Justin Garcia
Justin Garcia
A construction team works on the City Center at Hanna Avenue project.
Shawn McDonnell, President of the West Central Florida Labor Council, spoke at city council today to address the union's concerns with Tampa's  controversial "City Center at Hanna Avenue" project.

McDonnell, who was backed by six other union members as he spoke during public comment, said that the union represents over 100,000 working families in the area, and that the leadership of the union questions the legality of the city's project.

Mayor Jane Castor's city attorneys were requested by council to address the concerns publicly today at the council meeting, but then advised that they would not attend via a memo sent to city council on Tuesday. The memo said that no laws were violated when the city pursued the project.

(See a copy of the memo, plus response from Councilchair Orlando Gudes at the bottom of this post.)
But McDonnell, along with other leaders and experts in the community, claim that the  process behind the 11-acre project in East Seminole Heights—which will house hundreds of city employees—is riddled with problems that haven't been answered by the city.

"It seems like we're just going to kick the can down the road until this job's finished," McDonnnell said. "I've been down this road before seen it happen across the bay, I'm just confused as to where this is going."

When the city attorneys refused to speak at council in the memo, they also told council members that they should not speak about rescinding their vote to approve the $108 million dollar project—which was handed to DPR Construction last year in a no bid contract—citing legal concerns.

"The Consultant's Competitive Negotiation Act was followed and there is no legal basis to terminate or rescind the award of the contract for the Hanna Avenue project," city attorneys wrote in a memo. "In addition, the city's new apprenticeship ordinance does apply to this contract, and DPR will comply with that ordinance in connection with the construction of the project."

The memo said that the statement should serve in place of the administration's legal team making an appearance at council to discuss the issue.

"I believe all discussion, except involving litigation, must be discussed in the sunshine for the benefit of the public."

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Councilchair Orlando Gudes then wrote a response requesting that the agenda item be pushed to March 17, writing, "I believe all discussion, except involving litigation, must be discussed in the sunshine for the benefit of the public."

At several council meetings and through documents sent to council, experts have claimed the city may have violated Florida law with the city center , which requires public competitive selection of contractors for large construction projects, CL reported in January.

DPR was first hired by the city in 2015 for a much smaller project costing roughly $6.2 million. Last year, council approved the extra $102 million to DPR to construct the full-blown city center project, without a public Requests for Proposals (RFP) process.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that city council was "persuaded by Mayor Jane Castor’s administration" that the cost of the project was worth it at last year's meeting, and voted unanimously to approve it.
click to enlarge A DPR Construction sign sits on the fence surrounding the Hanna Avenue project. - Justin Garcia
Justin Garcia
A DPR Construction sign sits on the fence surrounding the Hanna Avenue project.
Despite the city attorneys bailing on discussion, McDonnell and the families he represents wanted to talk about the project. The union has several questions  that have yet to be addressed by the city. Mainly, they are concerned that the city skirted hiring contractors with an apprenticeship program, which is required by local law, via an ordinance passed unanimously by council last November.

"A contract was awarded to a steel erector that did not have state certified apprenticeship program over a contract that did have a state certified apprenticeship program," McDonnell said. "And we also had nine questions that we would like to have answered."

The union submitted a document back in February, expressing its concerns with DPR and the Hanna Avenue Project. Only one of the union's nine questions was answered by the city, which McDonnell read out loud to council.

"It stated the city and DPR both affirm that the Hanna Avenue Project is subjected to the city's newly enacted apprenticeship ordinance and requirements," he said. "The apprenticeship program is currently being reviewed by the city staff to ensure that it complies with the city's requirements, and that it'll be consistent with the intent of the city's apprenticeship ordinance prior to commencement of the construction project."

But the construction on the site has already begun, and McDonnell and his union said that they believe the city is avoiding following the ordinance.

After McDonnell spoke, city council members took a moment to address the union's concerns, but were advised to be careful of how they talk about the city center project publicly, because city attorney Gina Grimes had warned them against that.

In response, Gudes became visibly irritated, saying, "This house is responsible for the people's money. We’re responsible for answers to the people, and I get upset time and time again when we just go on eggshells, or try to put things under the rug."

Gudes said that council "should not be afraid of what the political fallout is" for council doing its job.

Councilman Bill Carlson offered a similar sentiment, saying, "We're not elected to make anybody politically happy. Our job is to protect the public and to represent the public."

Joe Robinson, a local expert on construction who was named in Tampa's controversial Rome Yard project, also spoke during public comment.

He said that a new design-build criteria package should have been put together by the city before awarding DPR Construction the extra $102 million to complete the entire construction project. He also claimed the project's initial contract documents from 2015 were "fraudulent" and suggested an advisory legal opinion from the Florida Attorney General on the situation.

Several other speakers during public comment highlighted similar concerns to Robinson and McDonnell, consistently mentioning the need for transparency in the Hanna Avenue project.

Stanley Gray of the Urban League was not at council today, but told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that his questions about the project have largely gone unanswered by the city. Councilman Guido Maniscalco was the only person from the city who met with Gray to address his concerns.

"I think the city attorneys are still looking for a solution, probably trying to find out answers to some of the questions that myself and others still have," he said.

CL contacted the city's communications director for input on the union and construction experts' claims but has not yet received a response. This post will be updated if a response comes in.
A memo from City of Tampa attorneys, plus response from Tampa City Councilchair Orlando Gudes.
c/o City of Tampa

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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