Taking a lesson from her police work, Tampa’s mayor believes in community collaboration
After three decades in law enforcement, Tampa's former Police Chief Jane Castor brings strong community partnership values to the mayor's office.
Tampa, Florida Mayor Jane Castor comes to City Hall with a strong sense of the community she governs. She spent 31 years as a police officer and has seen her city change from one of the most dangerous, to one of the best places to live in the country.
Castor takes full advantage of all her city has to offer. When she’s not performing official duties, you can find her on her boat, cruising along the Hillsborough River. Otherwise she’s out in the community getting to know her constituents, or at City Hall managing the city’s 4,500 employees or hanging out with their new “office dog,” a Humane Society rescue they call Desa, which is short for alcaldesa, Spanish for mayor. “She is cute. She makes everybody smile.”
We spoke with Mayor Castor a few days before Hurricane Dorian was predicted to make landfall in Florida. Luckily it did not. But here is what she had to say about what it takes for the community to pull together during a natural disaster. This Q&A is edited for length and clarity. Follow the mayor on Twitter @JaneCastor.
Mayor Castor, thank you for speaking with us. As your neighbors across the state prepare for Hurricane Dorian. Can you tell us how local businesses play a role in both preparation and recovery?
Businesses are a critical part of our preparation and our response to any natural disasters. To be able to communicate the preparedness messages to their employees and to be an active participant, we have a very robust re-entry program that our businesses participate in. To help after in the recovery process, we work with a number of private entities from the Electric company, Tampa Electric. They are bringing in extra resources to the area. Once the storm passes through to help us get the power back. We have a number of private vendors that we use to help us recover from storms, including insurance companies, debris haulers, carpenters, and construction companies, just a myriad of businesses. So they help us in the preparation, and then also in the recovery from any natural disaster.
You mentioned a re-entry program. Can can you tell us more about that?
With the advent of climate change, we’re updating our flood maps and so we communicate that to the entire city and there are a number of businesses as well as residences that are in potential flood zones. So we have a program by which the residents and businesses can go on and register and they’re provided a hang tag that will allow them re-entry either into their neighborhood or into their business right after the storm.
Aside from in times of great need like a natural disaster, what is the role of small businesses in helping Tampa move forward?
Small businesses are the backbone of our community. We do everything that we can to help small businesses get started and then prosper in our city. I took office in May and we just had our second Bridges to Business event. This is an event where we bring all of the nonprofits together and then bring in small business owners or potential small business owners, startups entrepreneurs—anybody who wants to come in. We provide them with information, training, and anything they need, whether it be financial marketing or writing a business plan.
You have to talk to the citizens to find out what they want from city government. — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor
We help 30 small business owners, we walk them through the process of getting on the city vendor list so that they can be eligible for city contracts. We’ve had two so far. We’re going to have one per month in each neighborhood throughout our community going through October. In the first one, we set the limit at 30 individuals and we had over a hundred sign up. At the second one, we probably had 70 business owners come through the event.
You came from a career in law enforcement, what’s the best job that prepared you for being mayor?
Really, my job as a police officer. I worked for the Tampa Police Department for 31 years and I was the Chief of Police for the last six of those years.
Is there a lesson from your years as a police officer, how you engaged with the community as a police officer, that you’ve taken with you to be mayor?
The biggest lesson is that it has to be a collaborative partnership between city government and the citizens of the community. We changed the way that that we policed. We were actually way high on the list of the most dangerous cities in the nation and now, close to 15 years later, we are the third safest city our size in the United States. We’ve reduce crime by over 70 percent in our city and that has been through a cooperative partnership with our citizens, working together to lift our city up.
What surprised you most about the job once you took office?
How long things take. Being a police officer, you’re used to being given a set of facts or information and you make a decision and then you move on to the next call. Here, the amount of planning that goes on and the fact that there aren’t many action plans in all of that that planning—seems like we have a plan for everything but there’s just not much action.
What’s one of your favorite ways to connect with or listen to residents?
For me, it’s going out into the community. I connect with the community through social media and through a variety of different programs that we have with our employees. I do a video message every week letting them know what’s going on in the city. I’s also on a number of radio shows and just out in the community every weekend. I’m out at different community events or driving around different neighborhoods just to hear from the citizens firsthand. That’s what I brought with me from the police department. You have to talk to the citizens to find out what they want from city government.
What’s your next Big Goal as mayor?
Transportation, affordable housing—just like most other municipalities across the United States affordable housing is a huge issue for us—workforce development and economic development, and sustainability and resiliency. I’ve crafted a team and we’re still bringing team members on, but I think the biggest goal for me is to address transportation in a meaningful way in our community. We had a citizen-led referendum for an additional penny sales tax and then that was challenged, appealed, and it’s actually going to the state Supreme Court right now. So hopefully that will be successfully ushered through and we’ll actually have funding to to deal with the transportation issues we have in our community. It will go to fund public transportation for the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County. Forty-five percent will go to our regional bus system—we have one of the most underfunded bus systems in the U.S.
What’s your favorite place in town to hang out when you’re not performing your official duties?
We have some neighborhood restaurants that are fun places that I can go and just be one of the crowd. But I would have to say probably my favorite place to hang out would be on my boat. I actually live on the Hillsborough River that goes through downtown Tampa and I live on the river just outside of downtown. So anytime I have the ability to to get my boat and go down the river into the bay, that’s a good day.
We ask all the mayors if they have some favorite nonprofits that are solving issues for residents. Are there a few nonprofits that you like to support?
The best one you could take a look at is called Starting Right Now. It’s a residential program for homeless high school kids. The kids are all recommended by their guidance counselors. By homeless, they may not be out on the street, but they’re moving—one young man had moved 19 times in one year with his mother—or they’re couch surfing or they’re living in their car. Vicki Sokolik is the founder and director and she is nothing short of amazing. This program is simply amazing. The kids have a 100 percent graduation rate from high school and the majority of the kids—90 percent—go on to college.
Each high school student is given a mentor and they are provided a myriad of services. They go through Dale Carnegie classes and give a speech at the end of it. They also go through therapy classes where they have poetry slams that they do on a regular basis. Just all kinds of services from top to bottom.
All right, this is so the lightning round. These will be quick. Name three words to describe Tampa.
Wonderful, friendly, and caring.
Oh my gosh, my first job was in a restaurant, working in the salad bar.
A Volkswagen Beetle. I bought it with money from my jobs. I was 17, so that would have been 1976, so it was probably a 1972.
Favorite subject in high school?
And last but not least, either the last great book you read or one of your favorite books?
My favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.