Tampa City Council Member John Dingfelder on Thursday refused to recuse himself from agenda items involving a prominent Tampa development consultant who is suing him.
Stephen Michelini filed suit against Dingfelder in October. Michelini accused Dingfelder of slow-walking a public records request tied to a proposed housing development on South Gandy Boulevard and using his wife’s email account to conduct city business. He also accused Dingfelder of attempting to intimidate him after the initial request was made. Dingfelder has denied the allegations.
Michelini is as common a figure at City Council meetings as Council members themselves. He’s often seen praising and giving gifts to city employees honored at meetings and citizens who receive commendations. he’s also often seen representing applicants looking to develop or rezone property in the city as a consultant.
Wednesday afternoon, Michelini submitted letters to the city asking for Dingfelder’s recusal on multiple agenda items.
“We requested Mr. Dingfelder recuse himself in order to ensure a fair and impartial hearing,” Michelini told City Council during public hearings Thursday.”
City Attorney Gina Grimes said her office looked at the request and legal precedent and determined Dingfelder should recuse himself. But he denied the request, saying he thinks this is all part of Michelini’s plan. Michelini and Dingfelder have butted heads over development in the past. Many of the clients Michelini represents want to develop around the South Gandy area and Dingfelder has supported moratoriums on development there.
“My attorney has asserted to the court that he believes that the Plaintiff (Michelini) filed this lawsuit for the purpose of trying to have me recused from voting on his clients’ rezoning cases,” Dingfelder told Florida Politics. “I have been fair and unbiased while deliberating and voting on thousands of rezoning cases over the past decade on Council. That is my duty to the community that elected me and the mere fact that someone files a lawsuit will not keep me from doing the job that I was elected to do.”
Grimes said she’s reviewed recusals with Dingfelder in the past and sometimes he’s recused himself, but not always. When the Gandy development came up last month, Dingfelder recused himself.
But Thursday’s votes were for different properties with different applicants. After refusing to recuse himself on the first, a rezoning hearing for a property on West Oakeller Avenue, Dingfelder supported the application of Michelini’s client and moved to approve it. It passed unanimously.
When the two other items came up, the attorneys for the city, and Michelini, reiterated the request that Dingfelder recuse himself. This time, another Council member, Bill Carlson, took exception to the request. Carlson said Grimes was setting a “dangerous precedent” by recommending Council members recuse themselves from votes involving consultants rather than applicants.
Dingfelder tried to pull the conversation back. He said he didn’t want to regurgitate the allegations in the lawsuit and thought any further conversation should be offline. But as was said in the film Pineapple Express, “Pandora doesn’t go back in the box, he only comes out.”
Soon, Grimes was defending her office’s position and Carlson was pushing for answers.
“Is it the opinion of the City Attorney that in a case where there are two different applicants, and a consultant to one applicant files a lawsuit, that if the same consultant works on the other case that one of us has to recuse ourselves?” Carlson asked Grimes.
But Grimes stood firm and told Carlson they could have that conversation offline.
Before City Council moved on, Dingfelder said he did recuse himself from an earlier vote and did so with hesitancy. He said he has since changed his position.
“I did it solely on the basis of the legal advice that you (Grimes) had provided,” Dingfelder said. “I’m not going to get into what my conversations are with my own attorney. Obviously, that’s my own attorney-client privilege. I started off 10 minutes ago just saying I’d rather not have any of this discussion…but at the end of the day I believe it’s my decision.”
All three of the hearings featuring Michelini as a consultant, were voted on favorably by City Council.
December 18, 2021 at 10:06 am
Kudos for Bill Carlson speaking up!! The question is…who is next to get suit filed so that they can stop speaking up for the people of the city of Tampa?? THIS is the most people friendly TCC we’ve had in many years. It is hurting the unregistered lobbyist agenda!
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