As she called for transparency, Tampa Mayor kept public in the dark about DOJ investigation, city center project

"At the end of the day, it's all taxpayers' money, and the people deserve to know the issues that Mayor Castor has withheld from the public."

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.
In April, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor called for more transparency from city council. But at the same time, she was keeping two big secrets from the public and council itself—a Department of Justice Investigation into its “crime free” housing program, and the fact that she had approved the controversial City Center at Hanna Avenue project.

Some local leaders have a problem with that and say the mayor shouldn’t arbitrarily decide when transparency is important.

"Transparency should be for every elected official, not just some people, who the mayor wants the public to focus on," Robin Lockett told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "At the end of the day, it's all taxpayers' money, and the people deserve to know the issues that Mayor Castor has withheld from the public."

Lockett—Tampa Bay's regional director for Florida Rising, a political nonprofit that advocates for historically marginalized communities—has spoken at several city council meetings, about both the Hanna Avenue project and "crime free" among other issues.

In her view, Castor is trying to operate the city like she would a police department.

"As a high ranking police officer and then police chief, she got used to people doing exactly what she said and being able to control the narrative," Lockett said. "But being a politician isn't supposed to be like that, the people elected you, so you have to listen to them and be honest with them."
She added that the mayor’s handling of "crime free" is similar to the way she dealt with "biking while Black," which in 2016 the Department of Justice said disproportionately ticketed Black cyclists.

"She finally had to admit 'biking while Black' was wrong when running for mayor, but never really apologized for the harm it did to our Black community," Lockett said.

Last December, the City of Tampa came under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for its “crime free multi-housing” program, which the Tampa Bay Times found targeted Black renters for eviction. But Castor's administration kept the federal investigation from the public until April 29, 10 days after CL had submitted a public records request about it.

Castor defended “biking while Black” when it was under DOJ investigation, and she’s also used easily debunked logic to defend the "crime free" program over and over again, even after TPD changed it to a new program called S.A.F.E.

"She's repeating that behavior right now, and on top of that she wasn't transparent about the investigation," Lockett added.

In the same month Castor came under fire for “crime free” housing, the community started asking who approved the city’s controversial $108 million Hanna Avenue project.
At the time, Castor's chief of Staff John Bennett and the city’s legal staff told city council that they didn't know who had given the massively flawed project the green light.

Experts said the project may have violated state law in its private bidding process (the Black community and unions also decried the city for not including them in the original planning of the project).

It wasn’t until last month—weeks after calling out city council members for transparency and accountability issues—that Castor admitted to approving Hanna Avenue City Center.

Still, this morning at Castor's State of the City speech, the mayor celebrated the Hanna Avenue project and said that Tampa protects its marginalized residents.

"We are a city that will always stand up for the rights of all of our residents," Castor said. "Those who feel that their fundamental American rights are threatened, especially women, people of color and our LGBT community, know that Tampa has your back."

Yvette Lewis, President of the Hillsborough NAACP says that the mayor's actions and lack of transparency about "crime free" and Hanna Avenue contradict the mayor’s sentiment.

"I don't feel like the city has the back of most Black people," Lewis told CL. "Maybe if you meet a certain status quo, or hold a certain amount of wealth, but the mayor's words at the state of the city are just another example of how she tries to cover things up."
Lewis also had a problem with Castor saying, "Tampa is nothing without its neighborhoods" in today’s speech.

She wonders which neighborhoods the mayor was talking about.

"Drive through Black neighborhoods like East Tampa and tell me our neighborhoods are being taken care of like the mayor claims," Lewis said. "And other neighborhoods that she helped gentrify with her programs like 'biking while Black' and 'renting while Black.' And over the past six months she's been covering up that the city is under federal investigation again for a program that targeted Black people."

CL reached out to the city's communications department for comment, but did not receive a response.

Lewis and Lockett are not alone in their criticism of Castor’s approach to being transparent with the public and city council.

Last month, Sandy Freedman—who served two terms as Tampa’s first female mayor after a turn as chair of city council—told CL “the mayor's administration itself has to be more transparent and less defensive.”

Meanwhile, Lockett just wants the secrets and the stubbornness from the city towards its poor and working class Black community to end.

"To be a good leader, you need to have a heart that listens to the people, even the poor and struggling people," Lockett said. "And you need to be vulnerable and transparent with the people, because they elected you."