Council member quits, but remaining 6 set to vote on Tampa chief nominee

TAMPA — Mary O’Connor walked to the lectern at the Tampa Police Department, sunlight from a nearby window glinting off the gold badge pinned to her dark blue uniform.

The city’s appointed police chief had called a news conference Monday to provide an update on the pursuit of a stolen Honda that turned fatal over the weekend when a teen driver slammed into the back of another car, killing a woman inside, police say.

“I met with the family this weekend and I speak for everyone here at Tampa P.D. when I say we share in their sorrow,” O’Connor said as her two assistant chiefs, Lee Bercaw and Ruben “Butch” Delgado, stood behind her. O’Connor said the pursuit appears to be justified by department policy but the incident remained under investigation.

The news conference, a typical sort of event for the city’s top cop, marked yet another public appearance for O’Connor in the whirlwind five weeks since Mayor Jane Castor announced she had selected O’Connor for the job.

Since the Feb. 8 announcement, the former Tampa assistant chief has been reacquainting herself with the department she retired from in 2016, meeting with community leaders and attending public events ranging from the somber to the celebratory. Along the way, O’Connor has navigated the controversy that accompanied her selection and the question of whether she will be confirmed by the City Council.

Now, an end to the uncertainty is on the horizon.

The council is to vote Thursday on O’Connor, the meeting agenda shows, though not in the seven-member configuration expected as late as Friday. Council member John Dingfelder on Monday submitted his resignation as part of an agreement to resolve a lawsuit filed against him by a local consultant for developers.

Dingfelder’s resignation does not change the plan to vote on the confirmation, council chairperson Orlando Gudes said this week. Gudes expects to take up the chief item first or very early in the meeting, he said.

The city charter says the mayor must submit department heads such as the police chief to the City Council for confirmation “by no fewer than at least four votes of the entire council …” The council agreed to put the vote on the March 17 agenda because members thought all seven council members would be present.

If the council rejects O’Connor, Castor has 90 days to submit another candidate or resubmit O’Connor.

“The longer this process runs, for or against, the more this city gets divided,” council member Charlie Miranda said at the time the vote was scheduled.

Miranda said this week he has made up his mind about O’Connor but declined to say how he will vote. Council member Bill Carlson said he has not decided. Gudes has said he’ll make his vote known after he hears from the public and his fellow council members.

Council member Luis Viera said he is still gathering public feedback and evaluating efforts by O’Connor and the Castor administration to engage with the public and council members.

“To me, Thursday will be the final chapter of the engagement that she has had with the community, and part of a frank dialogue on that engagement,” Viera said.

Council members Guido Maniscalco and Joe Citro did not respond to messages seeking comment. Citro said shortly after Castor’s announcement that he didn’t think he could vote to confirm O’Connor.

At a City Council meeting last month, Gudes suggested to Castor’s chief of staff, John Bennett, that the administration have a plan in case the confirmation vote doesn’t go the mayor’s way. Asked by the Times if Castor has such a plan, spokesperson Adam Smith did not directly answer.

“Chief O’Connor has had the opportunity to engage with City Council members and many residents, and the feedback from people who have met her has been excellent,” Smith said. “Mayor Castor is committed to following the confirmation process laid out in the city charter.”

Council members have said they received a wave of feedback from the public, much of it negative, after Castor announced she had picked O’Connor, who after retirement worked as a police trainer and consultant. Many wanted Castor to pick Delgado, the assistant chief Castor tapped to serve as interim chief during the search. Delgado is now back to his previous job of assistant chief of investigations and support.

Residents have also voiced concerns to the council and the Times about O’Connor’s arrest as a rookie officer and her status as a high-ranking official when the Police Department was stopping and citing Black bicyclists in disproportionate numbers. Some thought Castor should have gone with the third of three finalists, Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause. And many have said Castor should have gotten more feedback from the public at the front of the process.

But council members said correspondence from the public shifted after O’Connor started getting out into the community and Castor’s administration encouraged people to contact them to voice support. Some key community leaders who were initially skeptical of O’Connor met with the appointee, decided to support her and are telling council members to do the same.

Others have not. Hillsborough NAACP branch president Yvette Lewis told the Times this month that the council should vote no and encourage Castor to conduct a more open search and selection process that engages the community.

During the March 3 City Council discussion, two members voiced concerns about the process.

Council member Carlson said he’d had a “great conversation” with O’Connor and liked her, but that Castor’s administration has mishandled the process of appointing a chief and securing council confirmation. He said there had been a “roadshow strong-arming the community,” and “in the last couple of days suddenly we’ve gotten an email campaign from the business community telling us that we need to approve this.”

“There’s a respectful way of handling this and there’s a way of looking at it like a marketing push or a political push, as if we’re pushing for something on a ballot,” Carlson said. “Contacting the business community asking them to flood us with emails is a disrespectful way to handle this.”

O’Connor has been doing the job without council confirmation, a point of contention for some, including Gudes. He said he is concerned that the city charter is unclear on this issue.

“I have no problem with the candidate going out talking to citizens, communicating,” Gudes said. “But I do have a problem with the person signing documents as the chief of police and this council, per the charter, has not confirmed that person. I think that’s wrong. That is out of balance.”

The council scheduled a March 24 workshop to discuss possible changes to the city charter.

In responses to questions from the Times, Castor’s spokesperson Smith said O’Connor “has been meeting with people throughout the community, and when residents have asked how they can be helpful we’ve suggested they let council members know.”

“Public engagement and participation is fundamental to the democratic process, and certainly no disrespect of the City Council was intended by asking Tampa residents to communicate with their elected representatives,” Smith said.

To Gudes’ comment about the charter being out of balance, Smith said Tampa’s strong mayor form of government “has served the community well for decades and helped put Tampa in the thriving position it is in today.” He noted it’s been “only 33 months” since the city’s Charter Review Commission completed its 10-year comprehensive review process.

“The City Council’s two loudest voices to revamp the charter to give themselves more power served on that Charter Review Commission but could not muster enough support from colleagues to enact their proposals,” Smith said, an apparent reference to Gudes and Carlson. “Now they’re making a second attempt, circumventing the longstanding charter review commission process.”