NEW PORT RICHEY — The city should consider an ordinance that would combat the wearing of pants sagging below the waistline, Mayor Rob Marlowe said this week, suggesting it could be patterned after a controversial measure in Ocala.
Marlowe's comments came during a City Council meeting Tuesday, where he said he began thinking about the issue after receiving phone messages from a resident who was irate over the fashion choice favored by many boys and young men.
"These kids really do look like hell," the mayor said.
Marlowe was told after his comments that the Ocala City Council passed such a ban in July. That ordinance outlaws wearing pants on city property that are 2 inches below a "person's natural waistline," exposing underwear or bare buttocks, with a penalty of up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
"We should really see if it stands up," Marlowe said.
Ocala's ordinance has drawn criticism from the Marion County NAACP branch, which contends the measure will lead to the targeting of young black males. The NAACP has opposed such ordinances in other communities across Florida, said Carolyn Hepburn Collins, president of the organization's Hillsborough County branch, especially laws that impose stiff monetary fines or jail.
"We need to focus more on educating our young people that this is not a good habit," she said of the pants-below-the-waist style. "But putting them in jail or giving them fines they can't pay, anyway? No way."
But some council members in Ocala are having second thoughts about the ordinance, which initially passed on a 4-0 vote with the council president absent. Two proposals on Ocala's Sept. 16 council agenda deal with the law.
One measure brought by council member James Hilty would repeal the restrictions altogether, while an amendment by council member Mary Sue Rich would reduce the punishments currently in the ordinance. Rich introduced the ordinance that passed in July.
Though New Port Richey is far from formally considering such an ordinance, Marlowe already has some support on the City Council if it comes to that. Council member Jeff Starkey said he would support an ordinance if sagging pants are becoming offensive to the public. But he also said he doesn't see it as a major problem in the city, and that his focus is on combatting drugs and prostitution.
"I wouldn't be against it, "Starkey said. "Personally, I feel your pants or shorts should be above your buttocks whether you have on underwear or not."
Deputy Mayor Judy Debella Thomas said she would be up for a discussion, but worried about a "slippery slope" with regard to residents' First Amendment rights.
"I would sooner go in another direction by encouraging an overall atmosphere in the city where that kind of thing is viewed as unacceptable," she said.
New Port Richey police Chief Kim Bogart said he often fields complaints from the public about exposed underwear, but left it up to the council to decide whether such an ordinance is warranted.
"I know we as police see it every day," he said, "and it certainly is offensive to a lot of people."