Turning A Tampa City Council Vacancy Into A Plus | Editorial

This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

John Dingfelder’s resignation will force the Tampa City Council to appoint a replacement in the coming weeks. The selection comes as tensions between the council and Mayor Jane Castor threaten to overwhelm the substance of major, pressing issues, from reforming police practices to developing new water resources. The appointment, and the council’s confirmation Thursday of Castor’s choice for police chief, are opportunities for both branches to reset the relationship.

Dingfelder resigned this month from the council seat he’s held since 2019 as part of an agreement to resolve a lawsuit that accused him of abusing the state’s public records laws. Under the city charter, the council has until mid-April to name a replacement and, already, a crush of likely applicants are floating their interest in the job.

This appointment is a chance for the council to reflect the diverse city it represents, and to set a fresh tone that could help shape long-term decisions ahead. The remaining six council members are male; all but one are white. While the current makeup stems in part from a dearth of female candidates in the last city election, in 2019, the sight of an all-male group on the dais presents a throwback image. As a body, it certainly constitutes a narrower life experience than the city’s makeup as a whole.

More broadly, the appointment is an opportunity for the council to assess how it intends to work with Castor, at least until the next election in 2023. Several council members have clashed with Castor over water policy, police oversight and other issues. Though the council on Thursday confirmed Mary O’Connor as Castor’s pick for police chief, several members criticized the mayor for the secretive selection process, and suggested that those hard feelings would carry over as the council considers changing the balance of power by putting a charter referendum to the voters.

A fresh face on the council could help de-escalate tensions. That depends, of course, on whom the council appoints, and whether Castor uses the opportunity to more fully engage the legislative branch earlier in the policymaking process. The council rightly confirmed O’Connor after separating any unease over the search from the nominee itself. But O’Connor still won confirmation without a single vote to spare. Given that the police chief is the mayor’s most important appointment, the administration should reflect on what nearly led to a humiliating loss.

The air of raw politics at City Hall is disturbing, especially given that these are nonpartisan posts, and that the mayor and every council member are Democrats. Filling the council vacancy may not break the ice, but something needs to, because the chief’s selection pales in comparison to tougher decisions ahead. The public doesn’t need to see the mayor and council in lockstep. But the image of a functional government is critical for Tampa’s continued growth. It’s a confidence-builder at home, a selling point nationally and good electoral politics to boot.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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