TAMPA — When Mayor Jane Castor announced her pick for the city’s police chief, she said she didn’t “expect any issues” getting the City Council to confirm the selection.
There are issues.
One by one during its regular meeting on Thursday, the council’s seven members told Castor’s chief of staff John Bennett why they and many of their constituents were concerned about Castor’s decision to pick Mary O’Connor, a former assistant chief with the department who retired in 2016, and the process Castor used to select her. Some council members wanted to know what would happen if the council rejected the pick.
The collective message: There are lot of unhappy people in the city, and Castor and O’Connor need to convince them before the council votes on the confirmation.
“Talk to the public, but if ultimately they’re not convinced, pick a different candidate,” council member Bill Carlson told Bennett. “I would rather not vote down somebody. I would rather vote for somebody.”
The comments came after Chairperson Orlando Gudes asked Bennett and city attorney Gina Grimes to address the council on Thursday about the appointment process so members could ask questions, air their concerns and convey what they’re hearing from residents. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said this week that Castor expected to bring O’Connor’s appointment to the council for a vote next week.
“We truly have to be honest with the administration and tell the administration that we have a city that’s really angry right now,” Gudes said.
Castor had appointed Ruben “Butch” Delgado to serve as interim chief after Chief Brian Dugan retried effective Oct. 1. On Jan. 26, Castor announced that Delgado was one of three finalists for the post along with O’Connor and Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause. Castor held an invitation-only forum that night that was meant to give the three candidates a chance to talk to the public and answer questions. Delgado couldn’t make it because his father died.
Castor announced her pick on Feb. 8. The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that members of some key constituencies were upset about the pick and members of the City Council were hearing from them.
Members of the Black community have concerns that O’Connor was a high-ranking leader in the department when it disproportionately ticketed Black bicyclists, which was revealed by a Tampa Bay Times investigation and drew a U.S. Justice Department review. Some Hispanics in the city wonder why Castor would forgo the chance to pick Delgado, whose appointment would help address a lack of Hispanic city department heads.
The Tampa Police Benevolent Association also came out in support of Delgado from among the finalists and the union said last week it was disappointed in the pick.
Many questioned why Castor would pick O’Connor in light of her arrest during a traffic stop in 1995, while she was still a rookie officer, after she struck a deputy. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and obstruction and a judge withheld adjudication. She was fired and later reinstated.
Council member Guido Maniscalco said he had gotten “a ton” of communication from constituents and “all but one was negative.” He called O’Connor “a wonderful person.”
“But we’re looking at this from the perspective of leading the police department,” he said. “There has been criticism.”
Carlson said the feedback he’s received shows “the community wants Butch and they don’t want this applicant.”
“Very powerful people are contacting us. People in the streets and police officers are contacting us,” Carlson said.
Multiple council members said the process to pick the finalists and O’Connor wasn’t as open and transparent as they expected, and constituents agree.
“They’re saying there was no transparency in the selection, they had very little input,” council member Joe Citro said. “I wanted Butch Delgado, but it’s not about Butch, it’s not about Ms. O’Connor. It’s about the way it was handled.”
As chairperson of the council’s public safety committee, Citro said he would have liked to have interviewed O’Connor before the selection was made.
That would have been a good idea, council member John Dingfelder told Bennett, because “you might have gotten a little early feedback on how this was going to go over.”
Council member Charlie Miranda acknowledged it was tough for him to see Delgado lose out, but that doesn’t mean the process was flawed.
“No, the process was done in a manner that I believe was the right way,” Miranda said. But Miranda said that when he met with O’Connor, he told her she has “a hard stairway to climb ... and you can’t leapfrog it.”
Council member Luis Viera said O’Connor needed to “go into the fire” by meeting with community members.
“If someone is questioning the nomination, go talk to them,” Viera said.
Bennett told the council that Castor fulfilled her commitment to take a national look at candidates by working with consultant Rodney Munroe, a former police chief who understands “diversity, equity and inclusion.” They looked at the “best and brightest” and put the three finalists through the formal interview process, Bennett said.
Bennett suggested the council direct the “chief-select” to meet with the community and wait for their feedback. At that point, he said, “we would ask for an objective vote.”
If the council rejects O’Connor, Castor has 90 days to bring back another candidate or resubmit O’Connor for consideration.
Asked what Castor would do if that happened, Bennett said he couldn’t answer that question “because we’re not there yet.”
Gudes urged the administration to take a different approach by working “well in advance to say what’s going to happen if council doesn’t go along” with the pick.