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Tampa council rebuffs Buckhorn, pursues own police review board

TAMPA — The simmering turf war over the creation of a police review board erupted Thursday with City Council members choosing to take on Mayor Buckhorn over who should serve on the panel.

The council voted 6-1 to instruct city attorneys to draft a law that would allow them to appoint seven members of the nine-member board being created to provide civilian review of police operations.

And they were highly critical of Buckhorn, whom, they said, blindsided them in their efforts to create a review board last week when he set up the panel through an executive order without consulting them. The order gives Buckhorn the authority to appoint seven members and two alternates, which critics say will give him too much control of the board.

The division comes on the heels of other clashes between the council and the mayor over who hires legislative aides and arises from what some members called Buckhorn’s dismissive approach to the council.

“It reminds me that we’ve been a puppet for the administration and I’m past the days of being a puppet,” Council Chairman Frank Reddick said. “I’m tired that we’ve been embarrassed, overlooked, overshadowed. It’s disrespectful.”

Council members are set to review the new law at a workshop Sept 24, potentially setting up a show down with Buckhorn if they move ahead with a plan that conflicts with his executive order. As mayor, Buckhorn has the authority to veto any new ordinance but the council can override that veto with a supermajority of five votes from its seven members.

Councilman Charlie Miranda, the lone nay vote Thursday, warned that starting a battle with the mayor could damage how the city operates. He said those who want a different review board can push for it through a new mayor.

“I’m not going to tear apart this government,” Miranda said.

But most on the board were unhappy with how Buckhorn dealt with the issue.

“If the mayor would have consulted with us, I don’t think we would have much of a problem right now,” Councilman Mike Suarez said.

The council began pushing for a police review board in July in reaction to reports of police brutalizing individuals in incidents nationwide and to a Department of Justice probe of the Tampa Police Department’s ticketing of black bicyclists.

Florida’s American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and other community groups also backed the idea.

Buckhorn and Police Chief Eric Ward on Aug. 28 announced a Citizens’ Review Board based on a model used by St. Petersburg that reviews investigations conducted by the police Office of Professional Standards, previously known as Internal Affairs.

Ward told the council Thursday that he had reviewed different models for review boards and described the St. Petersburg board as “very effective.”

But Ward could not answer the council’s questions Thursday about how many cases the St. Petersburg board had reviewed and how many of its recommendations had been adopted by the city’s police department.

Ward returned several hours later to report the St. Petersburg board had reviewed 208 cases over the past five years and issued seven recommendations, but he had no information on what happened to those recommendations.

The council voted to have Ward appear before again Sept. 17 with more information.

The move to challenge Buckhorn followed calls from residents and activists, dozens of whom packed City Hall on Thursday to protest Buckhorn’s proposal.

They said a board appointed mainly by Buckhorn would be unrepresentative and unaccountable to citizens. They also want the board to have authority to investigate and issue subpoenas — a step beyond what either Buckhorn or the City Council are proposing.

“We have been very concerned about the problem of over-policing in Tampa,” said ACLU Director of Advocacy Joyce Hamilton Henry. “What has been proposed by the mayor is an ineffective model and is a rubber stamp for existing policies and practices that the community is saying are problematic.”

Many of the activists wore black t-shirts reading, “Tampa for Justice,” the name of a coalition of civic groups including the NAACP, ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Some recounted stories of mistreatment by the police.

“As black men we fear the police; I’m telling you this from the bottom of my heart,” said Eugene Harrison, a member of Tampa for Justice. “Once they know they will be held accountable for their actions, things will change.”

Buckhorn, who is in Dublin on a trade mission, was notified about council’s decision. City spokeswoman Christina Barker said Buckhorn would have no comment until he returns.

Criticism of the city’s administration wasn’t just reserved for Buckhorn. City Attorney Julia Mandell came under fire from the city council for her legal opinion that the city charter gives only the mayor the authority to create the review board since the mayor has authority over all city departments.

Mandell also appeared at Buckhorn’s press conference on Aug. 28 when he announced he was creating the board. Council members expressed concern that Mandell, who was appointed by Buckhorn, has a conflict of interest.

“I personally think you’ve done a disservice to this council,” Reddick said. “There is a conflict of interest on your behalf. It’s hard for any member of this council to sit there and judge now and trust what you share with us.”

The city council’s position on the review board was backed by Council Attorney Martin Shelby, whose legal opinion said the council was within its power to create a review board. In an email exchange with Mandell, Shelby also warned Mandell that she may have a conflict of interest.

Mandell said she would like any discussion on a conflict of interest tabled and requested that the city hire an outside attorney to review her role in the matter. The council agreed to the request.

“This impacts every attorney in the city office,” Mandell said.

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