Developer accused of ‘playing games’ with Tampa City Council in John Dingfelder lawsuit

dingfelder
Residents wonder how a records request from August prevented a developer from meeting a July deadline.

Who is Keyser Söze? That’s the question that sets up the action in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects.

Kevin Spacey takes viewers on an hour-and-half hunt for Söze, a villainous crime lord, only to discover his story was a distraction to allow him, the real Söze, to escape police custody.

It’s an oft-used literary device called a red herring. A distraction to take focus away from what’s really going on.

And that is exactly what neighborhood leaders and South Gandy business owners are saying development consultant Stephen Michelini is doing with his public records lawsuit against Council Member John Dingfelder.

After nearly two hours of debate and public protest, Tampa City Council granted Michelini a continuance in a rezoning hearing that had already been continued from May.

But Michelini and his attorneys said the ongoing lawsuit accusing Dingfelder of intimidation and withholding public records related to the rezoning bid would prevent him from getting a fair hearing and meeting the requirements of the original continuance.

“Our ability to comply with the original request for the continuance and the conditions that were associated with that were preempted by the matter that is now before a judge and considered to be the legal matter,” Michelini said. “That happened early on, within 24 or 48 hours of the hearing when the continuance was granted. It wasn’t that we were trying to ignore making those changes. We were preempted from making those changes until the legal issues were resolved.”

But the throngs of residents and business owners who showed up to City Hall for the hearing said they weren’t buying the excuse.

“I believe he’s playing games with the City Council and its institutions,” 81 Bay Brewing Company owner Michael Beard said. “I was at the last meeting when he was awarded the continuance after many, many comments opposing the application. He asked for it specifically so he could revise that application and no revisions were made.”

Michelini is a development consultant specializing in helping clients navigate government relations, permitting, land use and zoning issues. He’s representing John Lum who wants to rezone 4465 and 4467 West Gandy Boulevard to build a housing development.

Dingfelder has been an outspoken critic of development in that area.

Back in May, Michelini asked for a continuance during a rezoning hearing to address a number of concerns including the location of balconies, the number of parking spaces, the number of units in the development and even discrepancies over who owns the land.

City Council voted to continue the hearing to Nov. 18 with the caveat that changes had to be submitted by July to give city staff ample time to review.

“Your deadline is July,” Michelini said during the May 13 hearing. “So, we have a significant amount of time to address that.”

But no paperwork was filed in July. Then in August, Michelini’s attorney, Ethan Loeb, made a public records request through the City of Tampa for emails relating to the project. The request returned an email from Dingfelder to his wife in which a constituent thanked him for opposing the project. Loeb and Michelini accused Dingfelder of using his wife’s email to conduct city business and increased the scope of their request, focusing on Dingfelder’s use of personal emails.

During a September meeting, Dingfelder approached Michelini to ask him about the request. Michelini took that as intimidation.

In October Michelini filed the suit against Dingfelder accusing him of withholding public records. Michelini said he hasn’t been able to resubmit his application because of the ongoing litigation. But the public records request that sparked the lawsuit came after the deadline for resubmitting to the city had passed.

“Why is he suing Dingfelder? Because he wants to shut Dingfelder up,” Stephanie Poynor, president of the Tampa Homeowners Association of Neighborhoods, said. “He is manipulating our legislative and judicial branch.”

On Friday, Loeb maintained that the continuance is on Dingfelder.

“If he had done what we asked, refrained from the confrontation, and would now stop asking for us to continue depositions due to his ongoing delay in public records production, there would be no continuances,” Loeb said.

Dingfelder, however, has denied impropriety and said he is complying with the request. He said the request is broad in its scope and he’s been sifting through more than 35,000 emails and a few thousand text messages to find anything related to city business.

“I recognize that it’s my duty and I’m abiding by my duty,” Dingfelder said. “But it’s a very time consuming and tedious task to go through tens of thousands of documents.”

Loeb initially asked for a continuance to March 10, 2022. Council members voted to continue the hearing to May 12, 2020 to give enough time for the lawsuit to be resolved.

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected]


2 comments

  • Trump

    November 21, 2021 at 9:59 am

    You can find Stephen Michelini at:
    2407 W SUNSET DR TAMPA, FL 33629-5336
    what a POS he is

    Reply

  • Concerned Neighbor

    November 22, 2021 at 11:30 am

    Comparing this to a red herring is spot-on. Tired of Michelini and Lum taking advantage of unethical-but-not-quite-illegal business practices to make millions while screwing over our neighborhoods.

    Reply

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