TAMPA — A tense comment session at the Hillsborough County Commission meeting Wednesday may change the way the public can address the board.
Mark Klutho, a vocal Largo resident who frequents commission meetings, stirred things up by talking about a newspaper article on the fatal bicycle accident involving LeRoy Collins Jr.
"You have to follow the rules of the road," Klutho said.
Collins, 75, a retired two-star admiral, former political candidate and son of a Florida governor, was hit while riding a bicycle in South Tampa on July 29.
Klutho's comments came as Collins' widow, Jane, and son, LeRoy Collins III, sat six rows behind him.
Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita tried to intervene. "Have you no common decency?" Ferlita asked.
Klutho said he was exercising his First Amendment rights.
Sharpe, who was the acting chairman Wednesday, called for a recess and the Collins relatives were ushered out a side door.
County attorneys spoke with Klutho for a few minutes. He was then allowed his remaining time.
"Everyone has a First Amendment right," Ferlita said as the commission reconvened. "There's also certain decorum and a level of respect to go both ways."
Klutho countered: "I was just told I 'must respect.' That is not a requirement for me to come and speak."
Klutho is a fixture at meetings in Pinellas and Hillsborough.
County Attorney Renee Lee said commissioners have options on how to address public comments, including not broadcasting that portion of the meeting and putting public comment at the end. She said commissioners will talk about those options at their Dec. 9 retreat.
"We do give people a forum to reach a larger audience than if they just stood on the street corner," Lee said.
Collins' son and widow were in attendance for a discussion about naming the county's Veterans Memorial Museum for Collins, which commissioners ultimately approved.
Collins' son, who was at the edge of his seat as Klutho started his comments, said veterans like his father fight for everyone's right to free speech.
"You have to be thankful the veterans have given us the right to speak," he said.
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or [email protected]