Unlike four years ago, there isn’t that much buzz about the upcoming Tampa City Council elections scheduled to take place in March.
The lack of a competitive mayoral contest is the main culprit for the lack of interest, which trickled down to two City Council contests last week, where incumbents Frank Reddick (in District 5) and Lisa Monteleone (in District 7) were declared victors when the deadline for challengers to qualify expired last week.
That leaves five races to follow, and today was the first time the candidates in those contests gathered en masse, in a candidates forum.
The site was Maestros, the restaurant located in the Straz Performing Arts Center in downtown Tampa. The organizer was the Tampa Tiger Bay Club, and the general themes of 2015 coming from the challengers were all about neighborhoods, and how the current Council has not been as responsive to their needs as they should be.
In the Citywide District 1 race, Seminole Heights activist Susan Long is taking on incumbent Mike Suarez. “I live in Seminole Heights,” she began. “And we have heard nothing from Mr. Suarez. I’ve been talking to people in East Tampa; they’ve heard nothing from Mr. Suarez. I’ve been to New Tampa; they’ve heard nothing from Mr. Suarez. I think we need somebody who represents everybody.”
Suarez responded that Long obviously hasn’t seen him at all of the various neighborhood meetings he’s attended over the past four years, because he hasn’t seen her at any of them. “It’s about neighborhoods, and I’ve done a terrific job of reaching out,” he declared, saying he’s been to over 60 different neighborhood association events and the like. “If she doesn’t see me, it’s because she’s not with me.”
Paul Ermi works for a wine and spirits wholesaler, and has also served on several different city boards. He’s challenging Yolie Capin in the citywide District 3 race. He called Capin a “fine woman and beautiful mother,” but said what was needed on the Council was somebody “who will meet with every neighborhood association president in their first 100 days.” And in what seemed like a subtle dig at his opponent, he said “I’m not going to show up in a neighborhood with an escort. I’m going to go on my own.”
South Tampa businessman Kent King is challenging incumbent Harry Cohen in the South Tampa District 4 race. He too, is pro neighborhood.
“I feel strongly that City Council representatives should be the strongest advocates for your neighborhoods,” King averred. “I’m all for a dynamic downtown…But if you don’t take care of your neighborhoods that pay the bills, you’re going to have a problem. In fact, there is a problem.”
Cohen was prepared to respond. In a burst of verbal energy, he said that when it comes to neighborhoods, the balance was between what the Council can afford to spend vs. the needs of each community. He then rattled off a litany of accomplishments that the Council has done over the past four years, including redoing the Roy Jenkins pool on Davis Islands, beautifying Bayshore Boulevard, improving Ballast Point Park, installing a new fire station in Port Tampa, putting a new traffic light at Interbay Commerce in West Shore, dredging canals, repaving streets and beginning to address stormwater issues.
That pro-neighborhood bent espoused by many of the candidates was then put to a direct test among the three people running for the open City Council District 2 citywide contest: Charlie Miranda, Julie Jenkins and Joe Citro. A member of the audience remarked on how the city has an attorney, the City Council has their own attorney, but the neighborhood associations usually don’t, and are frequently outgunned at Council meetings (unless they pay for one themselves). Could the city help out there, he asked?
Jenkins said she personally agreed with him, and said it was something for the Council to investigate. Miranda said no way, and Citro said as a general rule he’d like to see the differences between developers and neighborhood groups worked out before ever coming to Council. He added that “Any city’s wealth can only be measured by its poorest neighborhoods. We have to get help for those poorest neighborhoods.”
The District 6 candidates were asked about the potential for more development along Florida Avenue, where venues like the Refinery, the Independent and Rooster and the Till have opened to great success in recent years.
“Neighborhoods matter,” Guido Maniscalco responded, keeping up with the general theme of the afternoon. “And the voices of the neighborhood.” He said it was crucial for city officials to learn from the “mistakes” made on South Howard Avenue with its plethora of bars and restaurants, and apply those lessons to Seminole Heights.
Jackie Toledo said it was important to go through the neighborhoods to find out what the citizenry wants. “Land use is the biggest job that we have” as council members, she said.
And Tommy Castellano said planning was the key. He said the Council has previously approved some bars and restaurants that never should have received the green light. “Seminole Heights is ground zero for development,” he added.
Two years ago Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist proposed the definitely outside-the-box idea of offering the empty dog track in Sulphur Springs as a natural venue for a baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, if negotiations ever allow the Rays to consider moving to Hillsborough County. Seminole Heights activist Randy Baron asked Toledo, Castellano and Maniscalco their thoughts about such a proposal.
Castellano called it “an ideal location.” Toledo said she would absolutely consider that possibility, saying that a downtown stadium would clog up an already congested traffic area. But Maniscalco said no, saying maybe for a football stadium, but not for baseball, which he preferred a downtown location for.
Transportation was also a frequently discussed issue. Suarez, who serves as chair of HART, said that if county commissioners opt not to vote to put a referendum on the 2016 ballot, then citizens should petition signatures to get it on the ballot. “That’s how we get this problem solved.”
Toledo bemoaned the lack of parking in some areas of the city, and suggested that if the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission could work with ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, “we can have alternatives.” She also said that the Council has given out too many parking waivers to bars and restaurants in the past.
The questions and answers were fresh today, as this sleepy campaign is only now beginning to rev up. But there will be a whole bunch of such forums in, yes, the neighborhoods throughout February, leading to the March 3 primary election.