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The Tampa City Council argues about diversity vs. status quo in choosing who will lead them

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The Tampa City Council has an election every year to choose a new chairperson. But the majority has chosen the status quo in recent years, continuing to choose longtime member Charlie Miranda as their leader, with nary a vote for any of the other six members on the board.

That lack of diversity in leadership has bothered a few members of the Council, leading to a proposal today by Councilwoman Yolie Capin that would place a limit of one year for a board member to serve as chair during a four-year election cycle, beginning when the new Council is sworn into office next month.

The board voted down that proposal, 4-3, but the issue isn’t going away. The board then unanimously agreed to discuss the issue at a planned retreat later this spring.

The issue weighs more heavily than anytime recently as the new Council votes on its leadership in a few weeks. That’s because of the fact that it’s taken for granted that Bob Buckhorn will be running for governor in 2018, meaning the Council chair at that time would succeed him. In addition to the considerable hike in pay, that new chairperson would be in a prime position in the race for mayor in 2019, as at least two current Council members are strongly considered to be among those candidates vying for that office.

The board members who favor a change in leadership knew that they would be touching on a sensitive issue, but that has never stopped Mary Mulhern, who is term-limited out of office after next week. Looking at colleague Lisa Montelione, Mulhern said that “You have gotten all of your committees every year, and you have voted for the same person for chair every year.”

“The mayor doesn’t like me either. He didn’t appoint me to anything,” Mulhern added, referring to Bob Buckhorn’s two selections to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, an agency she served four years previously during Mayor Pam Iorio’s reign in office. “This is the kind of thing that I don’t think serves the citizens very well.”

But that wasn’t all Mulhern had to say.

“I don’t understand why people don’t want to exercise their own power as councilperson and their own opportunity to perhaps chair a Council meeting — that to me is bizarre,” she said. “I’d really like to see less cronyism and more democracy on the City Council.”

Councilwoman Lisa Montelione was the board member who suggested that discussing the issue would be more appropriately held at a strategic planning session later this spring. “That’s the forum where we are allowed the graciousness of time to discuss these items at length,” she said.

Mike Suarez said he agreed with some of Mulhern’s points, but admitted that as the current chair of HART, he’s loath to give up that position after leading that agency the past couple of years. He also said that, in general, he doesn’t like the idea of term limits.

“An automatic rotation would probably not be a good idea because I do think we have other interests outside of Council that I think could pull us away and make it more difficult for us,” he said. “I believe we have that right every year and we should maintain that.”

One of the leading members calling for diversity in leadership was Frank Reddick, who called out what Harry Cohen referred to as  “the elephant in the room” — namely the fact that Mayor Buckhorn may not serve all four years of his soon to begin second four-year term.

“I don’t give a damn about being mayor!” Reddick declared, wanting to let the audience know that his interest in having someone other than Miranda serve as Council chair had nothing to do with his own ambitions. He said he was more disappointed in the fact that when pundits ponder who might succeed Buckhorn in 2019, no African-American candidates are mentioned.

But issues about committee and office assignments are part of the mix of a Council chair, and something that several Council members who seemingly support the status quo mentioned in their remarks. “You can’t change one thing, and not talk about the entire scope of decisions and responsibilities that the chair has,” said Councilman Harry Cohen.

Miranda waited until the end of the meeting to talk. He said he had “taken a lot of hits,” during the discussion, but said that was part of the job.

Without mentioning Mulhern’s name, Miranda said that he had asked the media four years ago to look at the attendance records of the City Council representative of the Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, because he said both agencies had called wanting to make changes.

“I refused to do that, because that individual was seeking office,” he said. “I had to make changes. Not for the betterment of myself, but to the betterment of this city, to make sure that all those committees were taken. I’ve done all that.”

Mulhern bristled, saying that she hadn’t said anything personal about anybody in her earlier remarks, but was only criticizing the fact that there had been a voting bloc of Council members who have consistently voted for the same person (Miranda) as chair. She said that she served on the two boards in question, but “I decided that I could no longer do both of those and notified Council and tried to find other Council members that would serve on those boards. So the reason that you’re checking my attendance record was because you hadn’t found anyone else. No one else wanted to serve on those boards and I was willing to do that.” (Miranda ended up picking Yolie Capin to serve on those boards.)

In the discussion of who might run for mayor in 2019, Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez have both been mentioned as possible candidates. Based on their previous comments and those uttered today, they don’t appear to be in any hurry of changing the current system. Along with Miranda and Montelione, they voted against the idea of limiting a Council member to chair for only one year.

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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