Like most of his colleagues, Mike Suarez will soon be heading into his final year on the Tampa City Council—he’s term-limited in 2019.
But the 54-year-old West Tampa native and District 1 councilman is considered to be set on staying in city government once his term ends. How? By becoming the next mayor, succeeding a similarly term-limited Bob Buckhorn.
If Suarez does decide to run for mayor in 2019, it could be a crowded field, with former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, former Police Chief Jane Castor, philanthropist David Straz and fellow councilman Harry Cohen all possibly being in the mix.
With that election still more than 14 months away, however, there wasn’t any discussion of future ambitions when Suarez addressed a crowd gathered at the Oxford Exchange for Café Con Tampa on Friday morning.
Instead the talk focused primarily on quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods, particularly transportation.
“Most of our lives are spent about three miles in radius to our own homes,” he said. “That sense of community, that sense of place, is something that we need to continue to do.”
But Suarez was dismissive of an announcement Thursday by Republican lawmakers Jamie Grant and Dana Young about a bill that could provide millions of dollars to the area for non-rail related projects.
“In their mind, the only technology that matters is autonomous vehicle, and some other things,” Suarez said. “I think we need to be a more efficient and smarter city, we have to invest in those things that deal with how we get around, where we have to park, and using technology to make it easier for us.”
He said he wants to encourage efforts with city engineers to make Tampa a more walkable city, saying transpiration is ultimately about “the freedom that you have.”
And that’s only possible with more information that city officials can provide, he added: “That’s much less expensive … than try to invest in an argument about which is the best investment.”
Tampa has a sorry reputation when it comes to the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists. And Suarez said that reputation is well deserved.
“Almost everywhere you go it’s extremely dangerous to walk. That’s ridiculous,” he said. “And that’s why when we talk about transportation, we talk about large projects … we need to do things like make our sidewalks better, and wider, and easier to walk.”
Suarez said he was OK with reducing the speed limit on Bayshore Boulevard from 40 mph to 35, but says there needs to be more enforcement since many motorists go well above the current speed limit everyday.
Suarez was asked by several in the audience about affordable housing. He said he hoped to “convince” developers into building more affordable units, something he said has not been a focus at City Hall, and wished that those developers would consult with Council as much as they do the mayor in bringing their projects to City Hall.
Like so many local officials in Florida, Suarez took his turn at lambasting the Florida Legislature for eviscerating the now quaint concept of “home rule” in the Sunshine State.
“The Legislature keeps taking more and more and more of your rights as a citizen of this city away from you,” he said, arguing that it wasn’t about taking power away from local lawmakers but from the citizenry.
The most recent source of the City Council’s angst towards Tallahassee is legislation passed during the 2017 Session that pre-empts the city’s authority to regulate where new 5G wireless antennas will be placed.
“Any people living along the Bayshore? Watch out. Look at what happens. You’re going to see some of these things pop (up) over the next few years,” referring to the antennas, which can be as big as a kitchen refrigerator.
Recently two members of Council visited Cuba, something that’s become a regular occurrence between parts of the business and political establishment over the past five years or so.
Suarez, a Cuban-American, has been resistant; as recently as last month he challenged Chair Yolie Capin to say whether members on the most recent trip had met with dissidents (they did not).
Admitting he’s been bashed in certain quarters for his Cold War attitude (shared by Mayor Buckhorn), Suarez didn’t seem eager to get too deep into the topic.
“To me, we spend a little too much time on that and not enough time on what our issues are here,” he said, adding,”If they want to talk about Cuba, I think that they should talk to their elected officials.”
In answering a question about funding the arts, Suarez said he didn’t agree with the Buckhorn administration’s decision to cut funding for entities like the Tampa Museum of Art and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts (all nonprofits took a 10 percent “haircut” in the budget).
“I didn’t understand that,” Suarez said, referring to the budget that raises taxes for the first time in 29 years. He said that the majority of that increase was going to personnel in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
When asked about Jeff Vinik’s Water Street Tampa mega-development, Suarez mused—while acknowledging that he had no inside information—that Vinik’s team is having a difficult time luring a major company to relocate their headquarters there.
That’s because of what audience member Cathy James said was “stagnant wages, not enough affordable housing and horrible public transportation.”
He did applaud Vinik for making the project more walkable, and said he hoped Vinik would invest some of his own capital into local transportation projects to make the $3 billion project a success.