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Straz calls for investigation of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s influence in Tampa

TAMPA — Does the next mayor of Tampa need to investigate the influence Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik wields in Florida‘s third-largest city?

Yes, said retired banker and philanthropist David Straz at a mayoral forum Monday at the Bryan Glazer Jewish Community Center in West Tampa.

Vinik came up when moderator Mike Deeson, a former television investigative reporter, said he’d been told by West Tampa residents that Vinik “gets everything he wants” from Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s administration.

What “controls” should be put over the city government’s interactions with Vinik, Deeson asked.

After former county commissioner Ed Turanchik said the next mayor should follow an “arms-length relationship” with Vinik, Straz weighed in.

“The Vinik question. Ladies and gentleman, we need more transparency. And that is, what kind of money is going into Channelside? Who’s behind the St. Pete (Tampa Bay) Times? Who’s behind All for Transportation? Who’s behind a number of these things around town? Let’s get some transparency and find out what’s going on. If you look at some of the blogs you can get a feeling that not everything’s great. We need to investigate that much more further,” Straz said.

Vinik was one of a group of local investors who loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times, in 2017. He declined comment through a spokesman.

All for Transportation co-founder Kevin Thurman said Straz’s comments were “ridiculous,” saying that the candidate had not responded to multiple attempts to brief him on the 1-cent transit tax proposal overwhelmingly approved by Hillsborough County voters in November. The tax is expected to generate about $34 million a year for Tampa to fix sidewalks, roads and other transpotration infrastructure improvements.

Straz has previously said he supported the citizen initiative and voted for it.

“Here’s the deal: you’re never becoming mayor, but you will still live in this city. Apologize to the volunteers, apologize to the people that made this actually happen — the volunteers and activists, please. You are belittling their work,” Thurman wrote in an email.

A Times spokeswoman also clarified the relationship between Vinik and the newspaper.

“The Times‘ relationship with the investors in FBN Partners in no way skews our coverage. Jeff Vinik is one of eight investors in FBN Partners. Each investor has an equal share. Except for the Times‘ Chairman and Chief Executive Paul Tash, none of the partners influences our reporting or editorial views,” spokeswoman Sherri Day wrote in an email.

None of the other candidates seconded Straz’s call for a probe. City Council members Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen pointed out that Vinik’s Water Street development lies within a city-and county-designated Downtown Community Redevelopment Area, in which property tax dollars are used for infrastructure improvements within the boundaries of the district. There are several CRAs around the city, including in West Tampa, they said.

The city and county both pledged $50 million each to the Downtown CRA that contains Water Street.

Turanchik, though, said “major clients” of his are reluctant to do business in the city.

“It’s an unfair playing surface,” he said. “Prejudiced by this relationship.”

Former police chief Jane Castor agreed with Suarez and Cohen about the legality of the city money going into Vinik’s development, but promised he wouldn’t get preferential treatment if she’s elected mayor.

In a spirited 75-minute discussion, the candidates covered some new ground. Straz called for an end to Tampa’s red light cameras, calling it a “money-making” scheme. Small business consultant Topher Morrison and Turanchik agreed that the program should be revamped.

And a familiar topic resurfaced again. After Straz promised to tackle fluff in the city’s $1 billion budget, Deeson asked him to identify one city program that could be called fluff.

“I can, but I won’t,” said Straz, who has previously made claims about “graft and corruption” in city departments without providing details.

Morrison said he was “deeply concerned” about Straz’s refusal to identify where he thought there was fluff in the city finances.

“I’m going to call his bluff. I don’t think he has one,” Morrison said.

“I won’t dignify that cheap political comment with even words,” Straz said.

“Where’s the answer?” quipped Morrison.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

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