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Tampa City Council debates personnel decision conflicts with Buckhorn administration

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Frustration between some members of the Tampa City Council and Mayor Bob Buckhorn erupted today at City Hall, after a lengthy discussion about hiring procedures for City Council aides.

Last summer, Lorena Hardwick, an aide to Councilman Mike Suarez, asked to have her hours reduced to part-time so she could work on the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.

After initially being given instructions from the legal department that Hardwick could continue to work for the city part-time as well as work on that campaign, a decision was made by an outside attorney, Thom Gonzalez, who then ruled that Hardwick could not do work for both the city and the Crist campaign. She ended up resigning her position with the city, losing her nearly six years of accrued service. She was then rehired by Suarez after Crist lost to Rick Scott last November, essentially as a new employee.

The usually unflappable Suarez clearly was agitated about what happened to his aide, as he pointedly requested information from Human Resources Director Kimberly Crum and City Attorney Julia Mandell, such as whether Mayor Buckhorn signed off on every personnel change when it comes to moving an employee from full-time to part-time status, or vice versa.

Crum said that such “fills” are reviewed by the mayor, though he doesn’t necessarily literally sign off on such decisions.

Also at stake was the fact that Hardwick was working on a political campaign. But Mandell said that Gonzalez’s ruling did not have anything to do with her political activity, but was because of the temporary reclassification of her position.

Councilwoman Lisa Montelione said she was confused, because she says that when her aide Marcus Garza requested to work on the Barack Obama campaign in 2012, she said she was told by city attorneys that he had to resign, and if he were to resume working again he’d have to go through the same procedures as if he were a new employee, such as undergoing a background check. She said she thought that was city policy, understood by all.

But Suarez said the difference was that the city’s legal department told him that Hardwick was allowed to stay on as a part-time employee and work for the Crist campaign. “This was not initiated so somebody could have their cake and eat it too,” he snarled, resentful of any implication that he or his aide was asking for something extraordinary.

Frank Reddick said the whole thing was embarrassing, lashing out at what he said the story was always all about.

“Let’s be real here — the mayor did not support Charlie Crist. Everybody knows that,” Reddick said. “And that decision was made based on his political position…those in the political arena know that. He made it known that he wasn’t supporting Charlie Crist….and for a city employee, a city administrator, someone who invested that many years with the city, and that person is denied that investment by a few months. What kind of city is this?” he asked.

He said it was time for change to the city’s charter when it came to a city councilman’s authority over his own aides. “This foolishness has got to stop.”

Crum appeared upset by Reddick’s comment, and said she wanted to respond to his remarks, asking to do so “with your permission and indulgence.”

Permission was denied by Reddick, prompting Crum to say simply that, “It’s unfortunate that the comment that you made rests with no discussion.”

Buckhorn responded in kind, telling the Tribune, “If that wasn’t’ so pathetically juvenile it would be funny. I would have expected more coming out of someone who claims to be chairman of the Council. It’s absolutely absurd.”

Buckhorn never shied away from his distaste for Crist last year, a former Republican turned independent turned Democrat who easily won the party’s nomination for governor last summer. A possible gubernatorial nominee himself in 2018, Buckhorn refused to say whom he would support in the gubernatorial election, alienating some Democrats for that neutral position. He then said after the election that he had voted for Crist.

The other issue the Council wanted to get an answer from legal and the city’s Human Resources departments regarded how applicants and current city employees are dealt with when it comes to a legal infraction being discovered during a background check.

This become an issue after the H.R. department rejected Councilman Guido Maniscalco’s choice of a legislative aide because of a previous DUI conviction. The controversial part of that decision was that Crum’s department cited an unwritten rule when rejecting the applicant.

“As a general rule, we do not employ folks with felony violence in their backgrounds,” Crum explained. “We shy away from those with sexual offenses, and any other felonies and misdemeanors we look at the period of time that has passed since their crime.”

There is a different policy when it comes to current city employees. If an employee is charged with a felony or first-degree misdemeanor, she said they are immediately suspended for 60 days. If found innocent, they can be reinstated.

Councilman Maniscalco said the city should have such policies in writing. “It’s unclear and confusing,” he said.

As the conversation subsided, Chairman Reddick then repeated that it was time for a charter amendment regarding hiring policies, and asked the city attorney’s office to provide a timeline on what steps would be needed to have the council vote on that and present it to the public sometime next year. Though there was not a consensus that it was required, the council did seem united to hear back from the attorneys on a timeline. That will come back to them at their next meeting on July 16.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the 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. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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