TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn faces a double challenge as he prepares for next year's Republican National Convention and reacts to protesters from Occupy Tampa.
First: update the city's special event permit process to accommodate an expected 10,000 convention protesters, many likely to show up with little notice.
Second: don't set any bad precedents with Occupy Tampa that will come back to haunt the city when the GOP convention comes to town Aug. 27-30.
"That's why we're being very cautious and trying to consider very carefully what changes may be appropriate," said City Attorney Jim Shimberg Jr.
Plans to revise the city's special event permit process were under way well before Occupy Tampa brought its first protest to Tampa on Oct. 6, officials said.
Buckhorn plans to bring proposed changes to the City Council in the next few months so everyone knows what the rules are in advance.
"There will be no last-minute surprises," he said. "This will all be in place so that anyone who chooses to come here for whatever reason will know what the ground rules are."
Currently city rules require groups to apply for a special event permit for any event that's expected to attract 200 or more people and to affect a park or public right-of-way.
The host group must apply at least 60 days in advance, 90 days if it needs a street closed or city services.
Applicants also must buy at least $1 million in liability insurance, plus pay for security, emergency services, traffic control, temporary restrooms and trash cleanup.
"The park permit system as related to peaceful demonstrators is inherently flawed," said former City Council member John Dingfelder, now the senior staff attorney for the mid Florida office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Dingfelder has been meeting with Shimberg and other city officials to suggest changes aimed at improving Tampa's permit process for the convention. He said he's not looking for an overhaul of the code.
Rather, he suggests that the city put something temporary in place, maybe for the week or two of the convention, as is done for the Super Bowl.
Dingfelder said he also would like to see the city designate a parade route within sight of the St. Pete Times Forum where demonstrators could march any time, maybe even without a permit.
While those conversations began months ago, Occupy Tampa's arrival raises the stakes. In responding to the current protests, the city needs to avoid mistakes that could complicate its convention planning.
"We have to enforce our ordinances consistently," Shimberg said. Suppose the city lets Occupy Tampa sleep in a park, he said. "All of a sudden, how do we get the homeless people out of the park?"
City officials have not required Occupy Tampa to apply for an event permit to demonstrate at either Lykes Gaslight Square Park or Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
"Initially it was somewhat of a spontaneous thing," Shimberg said. "We weren't sure of the numbers, and we made a decision that we wanted to work with them."
But city rules do require permits for gatherings in public parks of 50 to 200 people, with some of the same prerequisites, such as getting $1 million in insurance, that are required for larger gatherings.
Moreover, the city prohibits overnight sleeping in its parks. That has forced protesters' sleeping bags to the edge of the sidewalk at Curtis Hixon Park and, on Friday morning, led to six arrests when some didn't get up as instructed by police.
Occupy Tampa participants say only their general assembly speaks for the group. But at last week's City Council meeting, protester after protester called for the same thing: a public park, like the one that's home to Occupy Wall Street in New York, where they can organize and demonstrate round the clock.
"We've been left with no other action besides occupation," said Mark Propper, 39, of Tampa. "We should be given a park in the financial district, among the organizations that so oppress us."
Buckhorn jokes that he's still looking for Tampa's financial district — "we figure it's an ATM on Dale Mabry" — but says Occupy Tampa will not get a park to use 24/7.
"If they want a place to sleep, they can go home or to a hotel," he said. "Just because they want to occupy something doesn't mean we are obligated to provide them with an opportunity to camp out in a public park or on a sidewalk."
Dingfelder, who has been giving Occupy Tampa advice informally, said the city has "exercised tremendous restraint" in its interactions with the group.
But along with updating its special event permit process, he says the city ought to look ahead to a day when it might not have 50 protesters looking for a place to sleep but 10,000.
Maybe officials need to identify some wide-open spaces — perhaps Al Lopez Park, parking lots at Raymond James Stadium, or the Florida State Fairgrounds — where protesters could pitch their tents, he says.
Coincidentally, City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin last week suggested something similar, though she was thinking about letting protesters sleep in city parking garages.
Whatever, Dingfelder said, the city should be proactive. Otherwise, during the convention it could see its already-busy police chasing down and giving trespass notices to demonstrators who are wandering around looking for a place to stay.
"The city needs to be creative," he said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.