Tampa Council argues diversity vs. status quo in who will lead

Councilman Charlie Meranda

The Tampa City Council has an election every year to choose a new chair. The majority has chosen the status quo in recent years, continuing to choose longtime member Charlie Miranda as their leader, with nary a vote for the board’s other six members.

That lack of leadership diversity has bothered a few members of the Council, leading to a proposal Thursday by Councilwoman Yolie Capin for a change-up. It would place a one-year limit for board members to be chair during a four-year election cycle, beginning when the new council is sworn into office next month.

The board voted down that proposal, 4-3, but the issue isn’t going away. The board then unanimously agreed to discuss it at a planned retreat this spring.

The issue weighs more heavily than any time recently because the new council will select its leadership in a few weeks. That’s because it’s taken for granted Bob Buckhorn will run for governor in 2018, meaning the council chair at that time would succeed him. In addition to the considerable pay bump from $42,000 to $150,000, that new chair would be in a prime position in the race for mayor in 2019. At least two council members are strongly considered to be among those candidates for that office.

Board members who favor a leadership selection change knew they would be touching a sensitive issue, but that has never stopped Mary Mulhern, term-limited out after next week. Looking at colleague Lisa Montelione, Mulhern said, “You have gotten all of your committees every year, and you have voted for the same person for chair every year.”

“The mayor doesn’t like me either. He didn’t appoint me to anything,” Mulhern said, referring to Buckhorn’s two selections to the Metropolitan Planning Organization. Mulhern was a city representative at an agency four years while Pam Iorio was mayor. “This is the kind of thing that I don’t think serves the citizens very well.”

But that wasn’t all Mulhern had to say.

“I don’t understand why people don’t want to exercise their own power as councilperson and their own opportunity to perhaps chair a council meeting: That to me is bizarre,” she said. “I’d really like to see less cronyism and more democracy on the city council.”

Councilwoman Lisa Montelione was the board member who suggested that discussing the issue would be more appropriately held at a strategic planning session later this spring. “That’s the forum where we are allowed the graciousness of time to discuss these items at length,” she said.

Mike Suarez said he agreed with some of Mulhern’s points, but admitted that as the current chair of HART, he’s loath to give up that position after leading that agency the past couple of years. He also said that in general, he doesn’t like the idea of term limits.

“An automatic rotation would probably not be a good idea because I do think we have other interests outside of council that I think could pull us away and make it more difficult for us,” he said. “I believe we have that right every year and we should maintain that.”

One of the leading members calling for diversity in leadership was Frank Reddick, who called out what Councilman Harry Cohen referred to  “the elephant in the room” — namely that Buckhorn may not serve all four years of his soon-to-begin second four-year term.

“I don’t give a damn about being mayor!” Reddick declared, reinforcing that his interest in diversifying the council chair has nothing to do with his own ambitions. He said he was more disappointed that when pundits ponder who might succeed Buckhorn in 2019, no black candidates are mentioned.

Committee and office assignments are part of the council chair’s responsibilities, something several council members who seem to support the status quo mentioned. “You can’t change one thing, and not talk about the entire scope of decisions and responsibilities that the chair has,” Cohen said.

Miranda waited until the end of the meeting to talk. He said he had “taken a lot of hits,” during the discussion, but said that’s part of the job.

Without mentioning Mulhern’s name, Miranda said he had asked the media four years ago to look at the attendance records of the city council representative of The Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. He said both agencies had called wanting to make changes.

“I refused to do that, because that individual was seeking office,” he said. “I had to make changes. Not for the betterment of myself, but to the betterment of this city, to make sure that all those committees were taken. I’ve done all that.”

Mulhern bristled, saying that she hadn’t said anything personal about anybody in her  remarks, but only criticized that a bloc of council members had consistently voted for the same person (Miranda) as chair. She said she had served on the two boards but “decided that I could no longer do both of those, and notified council and tried to find other council members that would serve on those boards. So the reason that you’re checking my attendance record was because you hadn’t found anyone else. No one else wanted to serve on those boards, and I was willing to do that.” (Miranda finally picked Capin for those boards).

In the discussion of possible mayoral candidates in 2019, Councilmen Cohen and Suarez have been mentioned as possibilities. Based on their previous comments and those Thursday, they don’t appear to be in any hurry of changing the current system. Along with Miranda and Montelione, they voted against the idea of limiting a council member to chair for only one year.

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at [email protected].


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