Thursday, June 21, 2018
Politics

Republican National Convention to disrupt civic life in downtown Tampa

TAMPA — Protesters and jurors don't mix.

So don't expect to see judges gaveling trials to order at the Hillsborough County courthouse the week of Aug. 27-30, when the Republican National Convention comes to town.

The courthouse will be open, officials say, but some other downtown government offices won't be. At the same time, fences might go up around the courthouse and County Center, or selected streets could be closed to keep rock-throwing vandals away.

Taken together, such measures, now under consideration by local officials, provide a glimpse of the impact that the convention promises to have on civic life in downtown Tampa.

"We have to have some security, because there are groups out there who want to disrupt the convention," Hillsborough County fire Chief Ron Rogers said. "One of the things they like to do is break glass. . . . It's sad, but that is their goal."

Many of the plans for the courthouse, as well as for city and county buildings, are either not set or not being discussed publicly. Much will depend on where the Secret Service sets the security perimeter, and that hasn't been announced.

Up to 15,000 demonstrators are expected for the convention. Many could come for an Aug. 27 march organized by more than two dozen protest groups, including organized labor, student radicals and anti-war protesters.

But while police say only a tiny number is likely to try to damage buildings or disrupt the event, even a peaceful convention promises unprecedented traffic jams.

So officials are trying to minimize the impacts.

Consider the jurors.

On a typical week, the courts call 350 to 400 citizens downtown for jury duty.

But during the convention, "just getting in and out of downtown is going to be difficult," Hillsborough Circuit Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. said. "We've decided not to put jurors through that."

So judges aren't scheduling trials that week and are trying to minimize the number of hearings.

But what if a defendant's right to a speedy trial would be violated without holding a trial?

"We can go over to Plant City and try it there," Menendez said. "We've got a courthouse there. We've got holding cells there."

That same week, the courts are looking to move first appearance hearings for just-arrested inmates out of downtown, maybe to makeshift courtroom space at the jail east of town.

Other hearings — for traffic court, domestic violence injunctions, juvenile detention hearings and shelter hearings for children taken away from their parents — also could be moved to other government facilities out of downtown.

Still, there is no plan to close the courthouse itself.

"We're not going to deny someone the right to access the courts, to file a paper or a new motion," Hillsborough court administrator Michael L. Bridenback said. "If they want to pay a fine, we want them to be able to pay a fine."

For protesters arrested outside the convention, court officials may have judges on call, Menendez said. Once booked, those inmates could go directly before an on-call judge.

The difficulty of conducting business as usual also has led the Hillsborough tax collector and property appraiser to plan to close downtown operations for the convention. Staff will be shifted to suburban branches or other centers. Some may work from home via Citrix or on iPads.

"We will still operate, but not at the downtown location," Tax Collector Doug Belden said.

Whether the County Center itself remains open is another question. Belden said he would recommend closing it because the sheer number of people would make it "virtually impossible to conduct business in the County Center."

So far, there's no decision on that, Rogers said. One factor: Joe Chillura Courthouse Square, across the street, could be the focus of protests.

Local officials have discussed putting a fence around either the state courthouse, the County Center or both. They also could close some streets, such as Twiggs Street, where an elevated walkway between two courthouse buildings could be a tempting target for vandals.

"Twiggs is one of the ones they're concerned about because it's got that overhead walkway," Menendez said.

County officials say they are making plans so no services are disrupted and employees and the public are safe.

"And there will be plenty of notice ahead of time about how the services that folks are used to getting will be provided," Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said.

Likewise, the city has made no decisions about closing buildings.

"A lot will be determined by what the parade routes are and what the proximity of the protest areas are to City Hall," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

Or putting up fences.

"I'm sure fencing is going to be one of the options for both private sector and public sector employers," Buckhorn said.

This, however, is clear: Officials are talking about putting up fences or other security measures only at government buildings.

Police have met with downtown property managers to discuss ways to safeguard their buildings.

But when it comes to paying for those measures, officials say businesses will be on their own.

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