The Tampa City Council this month will explore reversing its decision to move forward with one of the largest investment projects in city history, much to the chagrin of city staff.
Council members unanimously approved the more than $100 million city center project on Hanna Avenue in the historically Black neighborhood of East Tampa in November. The vote approved a design-build contract with DPR Construction, piggybacking off a $1.2 million contract from 2015.
The project would see the construction of an 11-acre complex with public gathering spaces and would move most of the city’s departments under one roof for the first time.
But in the months since reapproving the award with the project’s massive change in scope, members of the public from the engineering and building communities, along with residents of East Tampa have complained about transparency and fairness in the city’s process of awarding a contract 100 times larger than originally anticipated and more than six years after the initial contract was improved.
The Council, so far, has listened.
“We’re not elected to make anybody politically happy. Our job is to protect the public and to represent the public,” Council Member Bill Carlson said. “And when we have a shortage of money for potholes and a shortage of money for sidewalks and the things the public wants, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we ask questions. And whatever the political fallout of asking questions, it’s our duty in representing the public to ask the questions.”
But city staff said it might be too late. They don’t even want the Council to talk about a reversal. More than half a dozen high-level members of staff, including those on the city’s legal team, sent council members a memo Tuesday recommending the Council not only stick with the contract, but said Tampa could face massive legal and financial fallout from even discussing it publicly.
“Any discussion of the possible termination of the DPR contract should not be undertaken and could expose the city to possible anticipatory breach of contract claims and liability for breach of or early termination of the DPR contract,” the memo said. “In any of those events, the damages and expenses that could be suffered by the city are potentially substantial and extensive.”
The memo outlined the contract process.
In 2015, DPR was originally contracted for a $1.2 million design-build project for renovations of a building on the coming campus, following standard bidding and award processes. But when the project began in 2015, DPR said a renovation wasn’t possible. The building needed to be razed. But the city couldn’t afford that project at the time and it was put on hold. The agreement with DPR was suspended but not terminated.
In 2020, the City Council voted to revisit the demolition and construction, sticking to the original agreement. Staff asked to explore moving other city departments to the Hanna Project. In March 2021, the City Council voted to amend the original contract and change the scope of the project to its current iteration.
Staff refuted public assertions that a contract was awarded without transparency or a proper bidding process.
“It is not unusual for the scope of complex city projects to evolve over time and for complex projects to be substantially delayed,” the memo said. “In addition, it is not unusual for costs to exceed or vary from the original project estimate. However, these factors do not mandate that the Hanna Avenue Project undergo a second CCNA (Consultants’ Competitive Negotiation Act).”
Staff also pointed out DPR’s contract included a requirement for 35% participation from women and minority-owned businesses and other small or marginalized businesses. Tampa also hired a project manager to ensure that is accomplished.
Council members moved discussion of the reversal from Thursday’s meeting to the March 17 meeting. But when council members started talking about moving the discussion, City Council Attorney Martin Shelby — who represents the City Council and is independent from the city attorney’s office — looked for advice from the city’s legal team on how the Council should proceed.
Council Chair Orlando Gudes, visibly and admittedly frustrated, told Shelby that’s what he’s there for.
“Your job is to empower this Council. To give us recommendations, sir. To do research, sir. And to tell us what we can do and what we can’t do,” Gudes said. “From that point, if legal comes down and says, ‘Mr. Shelby you are in contrast with what we’re saying,’ that’s a fight that we’ll deal with legal and you on. But … I’m going to make it clear to you, sir, … that your job is to empower this Council to do our job regardless.”
It’s not the first time the City Council has butted ideological heads with the city’s legal staff in recent months.
In December, City Council Member John Dingfelder bucked a recommendation from legal to recuse himself from certain votes involving development consultant Stephen Michelini. Michelini is suing Dingfelder over his response to a public records request. City Attorney Gina Grimes has expressed frustration over how Carlson fills out forms related to recusing himself from votes. Carlson said he has since tried to provide more information on his forms.
It’s also not the first time the City Council has reversed a recent decision. Council members voted to revisit a tenants bill of rights ordinance it shot down after passing on first reading (ordinances are read and voted on twice before going into effect). And it voted to explore changing course on a controversial new noise ordinance.
The City Council will hold a workshop March 24 to discuss possible changes to the city’s charter that could shift the balance of power in Tampa.