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As protesters wait, GOP convention gets first dibs on downtown Tampa parks

TAMPA — In writing the rules for rallies during the Republican National Convention, city officials have put considerable energy into creating an expedited, easy-to-use permit system for protest groups that want to use downtown city parks.

There are even plans for a lottery in case more than one group wants to book the same park at the same time.

But before the city can issue the first permit, the convention itself will have a big say in which parks could be available to protesters.

That's because the Tampa Bay Host Committee's contract with the city gives the convention first dibs on deciding whether to use nine city parks and five parking lots for convention activities.

Five of those parks — Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Lykes Gaslight Square Park, Herman Massey Park, MacDill Park and Perry Harvey Park — are on the convention's list of venues available for state delegations, media companies, visiting corporations, think tanks and trade groups to reserve for convention-related parties or other events.

In their latest draft of a temporary ordinance setting out rules for the August convention, Tampa officials write that applicants who want to reserve parks in a downtown "Event Zone" are "strongly encouraged" to make an application by June 11.

But even if the City Council approves the ordinance by then, it's not clear that the convention will have said which parks it wants to use.

The convention has set a May 1 deadline for delegations and other groups to put in their requests for reserving venues.

Once those applications are in, convention organizers must match groups to venues, a process that sometimes involves talking to applicants about second and third choices if the first isn't available. There's also the possibility that a venue, including a city park, could be booked by one group on Monday, another on Tuesday, and so on.

"Doing all that back and forth with those requests sometimes takes a while," convention spokesman James Davis said Wednesday. He said "we're probably looking at June" for when the convention will tell the city which parks it wants to use and which will be available for others.

Even then, the convention will have to go through the city's standard special-event permitting process, Assistant City Attorney Mauricio Rodriguez said. That includes paying a permit fee, buying insurance and applying at least 60 days in advance, 90 if the event needs a street closed.

The agreement between the city and convention, scheduled for Aug. 27-30, was aimed at making parks available for convention-related events, city officials say.

City officials are still working with police to make sure that the parks made available can be staffed, but the intent is to make applications available online as soon as possible after the council votes twice, on May 3 and May 17, to approve the ordinance.

"We want to make it clear to the different groups: We're not trying to hide the ball on them," Rodriguez said.

Still, protest leaders complain that the city should have seen sooner that it was going to get thousands of protesters and been ready to issue permits by now.

"It is very frustrating," said Fight Back Florida organizer Jared Hamil, who turned in an application in January to stage a 5,000-person march starting from Curtis Hixon park.

Hamil said it's not right for the convention to decide whether to use public parks "for a party or little shindig" while protesters wait to make plans to voice "very real complaints and very real demands."

An American Civil Liberties Union attorney said access will be a significant issue for any group, big or small, liberal or conservative, looking to demonstrate, and it's not made easier by the small amount of park space available in downtown Tampa.

"It's an insult to the public that a private entity was given the right of first refusal to all that public land," said John Dingfelder, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's mid Florida office.

Dingfelder, a former Tampa City Council member, left the council to run for County Commission before the city's contract with the convention came up for a vote in 2010.

"It's unfortunate that some of these clauses snuck their way into that contract before everybody got into the nuts and bolts of what this actually means," he said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

As protesters wait, GOP convention gets first dibs on downtown Tampa parks 04/25/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 3, 2012 4:22pm]
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