LARGO — A little known fact about Largo: It is Pinellas County's only major city without a law regulating open containers of alcohol in public.
In other words, at bus stops, on the sidewalk, in parks, Largo police are powerless to stop public drinkers for simply possessing or drinking from an open container of alcohol.
But not for long.
On Tuesday, city commissioners approved 6-1 a first reading of an ordinance that will prohibit open containers and public consumption.
The ordinance would go into effect after a second reading, scheduled for Feb. 1.
"It would provide an opportunity for them (police) to step in before it becomes a public intoxication or public nuisance," said assistant city attorney Mary Hale.
City attorney Alan Zimmet noted, though, that simply being drunk in public is not and will not become a crime; creating a nuisance, however, is.
Police Lt. Mike Loux, who worked with Hale in drafting the ordinance, said some who know about the Largo loophole exploit it.
"It's known that you're able to walk down the street with an open container. We do definitely come upon it," Loux said. "As far as I know, we're the only municipality without it (open container rules)."
The penalty attached to the ordinance is a fine up to $500 or up to 60 days in jail.
A slightly different version of the ordinance was rejected by commissioners at a Jan. 4 meeting because parts of it, several feared, could unfairly impact residents lawfully enjoying a brew.
"When I read this, I walk away with, this is eliminating an open container anywhere, even if I was going from my house to a neighbor's house to attend a party," Vice Mayor Robert Murray said at the previous meeting. "Walking across the street, I'm in violation of this law. I know what we're trying to do, but it seems to be very, very broad."
Hale and Loux worked out a compromise for the new version that met commission approval: An open wine bottle or beer, for instance, can be lawfully transported so long as it is inside another closed container, such as a cooler.
People collecting litter who may pick up a half-empty beer can in the process are also exempt under the ordinance.
A section was also removed that would have restricted businesses like supermarkets and convenience stores from selling closed containers of alcohol within 300 feet of a school or church after commissioners called it stifling to private enterprise.
Murray said the new version of the ordinance assuaged his concerns.
"I was concerned about the unintended consequences down the road," Murray said. "So in this ordinance, they have clarified that."
The timing of the ordinance comes just after Pinellas Safe Harbor, which will house up to 500 of the chronically homeless as well as local ordinance violators, opened on the city's eastern border this month.
While the ordinance does not specifically target the shelter inhabitants, discussion about the shelter's impact played into talk surrounding the ordinance.
"As we go along with the new Safe Harbor shelter, we are going to see more and more problems because we will have people who are repeat offenders being placed there who can wander the streets and do as they please," said Commissioner Mary Gray Black this month. "It would behoove us to have something on the record to enforce as needed."
Loux said the ordinance, which was first brought to commissioners at a 2009 work session and subsequently put on the back-burner, had nothing to do with the arrival of the homeless shelter.
"It's just weird timing," Loux said.