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Tampa council delays vote on 'Clean Zone' protest rules for GOP convention

TAMPA — Swamped by complaints, the City Council put off voting Thursday on a proposed set of ground rules for protests outside the Republican National Convention.

The two-week delay is meant to give officials time to address concerns raised by civil libertarians, Occupy Tampa, protest groups — and the council itself.

"Completely unworkable," council member Mary Mulhern said of the proposed "Clean Zone" ordinance. "We need to go back to the drawing board."

Chief among the council's concerns was that the Clean Zone, where many types of potential weapons would be banned, would be too big.

Council member Frank Reddick said there's no reason to extend it into the tough neighborhoods of his East Tampa district, as is proposed.

"No one is going to go north of I-4 unless they're lost," he said, "and when they find where they're at, they're going to be looking for the police."

With up to 15,000 protesters expected to come to Tampa for the Aug. 27-30 convention, the city wants to create a designated area close enough for delegates to see and hear the protesters.

That protest area would be inside the much larger Clean Zone, which would cover downtown, Ybor City, the Channel District, Davis Islands, Harbour Island and parts of Hyde Park, Tampa Heights and West Tampa.

The city would establish permit procedures for parades and demonstrations in the Clean Zone. As originally proposed, it also would set a 60-minute time limit on parades and rallies there.

The city also would ban virtually anything that could be used as a weapon in the Clean Zone, with one key exception.

It turns out Tampa does not have the authority to stop gun owners with concealed weapons permits from bringing their guns into the protest areas.

That's because the Legislature passed a 2011 law prohibiting cities from enacting their own rules on guns, and fining them if they do. As a result, the city could ban water guns in the Clean Zone, but not real ones.

The irony is becoming a national joke.

"Good news for gun lovers this August!" MSNBC host Rachel Maddow told viewers Wednesday night. "It appears that you and your concealed handgun may find a way to have a grand old party together in Tampa."

City Attorney Jim Shimberg Jr. said he wishes the city could have included guns on the list of banned items, "but we can't."

"I don't want us in Tampa to be the scriptwriters for the Comedy Channel, but that's exactly where the state Legislature has placed us," council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said.

Closer to home, local critics said the proposed ordinance is unrealistic, unworkable and unconstitutional.

"Not ready for prime time," American Civil Liberties Union of Florida president Michael E. Pheneger said "We believe it places many unreasonable burdens on the right of people to speak, peaceably assemble and protest. Some elements are just simply confusing."

The 60-minute time limit, especially, is "unprecedented, unworkable and constitutionally suspect," he said.

More vocal critics called the rules "Orwellian" and "draconian," and said the city is over-reacting out of fear.

"There's going to be no violence whatsoever coming from our side," said Dave Schneider, statewide director of Fight Back Florida, which he said wants to hold a peaceful, family-friendly march.

Protesters also said the name "Clean Zone" is insulting, suggesting they're dirty.

No offense was meant, Shimberg said. The city has used the term Clean Zone in similar temporary ordinances adopted when Tampa has hosted the Super Bowl. It simply used it again.

"We can change the name," Shimberg told the council. "We're working absolutely in good faith. We're not trying to take away anyone's rights."

Everything on the list of banned items had been used to commit crimes at previous conventions, officials said.

Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin said the size of the Clean Zone was based on mapping where the "event energy" took place at past conventions and similar events, and laying that over a map of Tampa.

Officials have said one of the reasons for proposing a 60-minute time limit was because police officers should not work in steamy August heat for more than an hour without a break.

But Hamlin said the heat will be a factor for demonstrators, too. Most officers won't be going around in body armor, he said. Some, like a planned 200-officer bike patrol, will wear uniforms of shorts and polo shirts. On the parade routes, officers will dress as they do for Gasparilla.

"The uniform of the day will be the short-sleeved uniform," he said.

He hopes most officers' body armor stays in the duffel bag. "If people come out there in riot gear, that means that bad things have already happened."

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The council also voted to:

• Consider allowing bars near the convention to stay open later than usual on the four nights of the event. Council member Harry Cohen made the motion, saying he attended the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. "We got out about 11:30, 12 o'clock at night and everything was closed and there was nowhere to go to eat," he said. Because most convention business happens fairly late, he said "it's not unrealistic to believe that people are going to be getting out and wanting to go get something to eat as late as midnight or 12:30." A proposed ordinance temporarily allowing later closing times is scheduled to come back May 3.

• Approve $1.4 million in police security purchases for the convention. The money, from a $50 million federal grant, will pay for software and technology upgrades ($992,490), 200 bicycles for a bike patrol ($319,400) and 13 golf cart-like utility vehicles ($150,730).

Tampa council delays vote on 'Clean Zone' protest rules for GOP convention 04/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 5, 2012 11:37pm]
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