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They aim to tame the excesses of Gasparilla

Imagine the terror that phone call might strike in a teenage heart.

OMG, it's Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia calling your house. And Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. And they'd like to have a word about your behavior at Gasparilla.

For this year's annual Bayshore bacchanalia, they want you to know "what is and is not appropriate" and they expect you to "act safely, responsibly and obey the laws." The tone is friendly, but you can sense the muscle beneath, can practically see them both sternly shaking index fingers at you: This year, behave. Or else.

Imagine: For Tampa's 106th Gasparilla parade, planners are talking zero tolerance for some of the uglier time-honored traditions of the day: underage drinking, pillaging of neighborhoods, public peeing and flashing body parts for beads. After years of handing over the city — not just to that elite band of white-guy pirates but to the public at large — Tampa is making an honest effort to clean up Gasparilla. Wisely, they're focusing on young people who hear "Gasparilla" and think "no-rules, free-for-all par-tay!"

Possible theme for this year's street fest Jan. 30: Gasparilla Gone Tame!

Skeptical? They're sending cops to schools to say what's not okay. They're adding 50 officers to watch neighborhoods where residents have been held hostage by celebrants struck idiotic by copious amounts of pre-noon beer. They're running an ad campaign at local stores. And, yes, they're dialing Hillsborough households that contain high schoolers with a recorded message they hope will penetrate the impervious teenage brain.

I called Sandy Freedman, the former mayor who famously refused the tradition of handing over the keys to the city (handing over the city being what they're trying to avoid now). They're fixing Gasparilla! I say.

"What?" she says, not missing a beat. "They reinstated prohibition?"

She has a point. Gasparilla at its best is a sunny Saturday of graceful boats, good vibes and thousands of happy citizens filling the streets. At its worst, it is embarrassing YouTube videos like "Gasparilla Hootchie," in which a listing female paradegoer repeatedly forgoes her dignity to get a strand of plastic beads tossed her way, or another of a police officer pulling a child's wagon containing a sprawling, passed-out woman.

Here is what is surprising — encouraging, even — about this combined effort of sponsors, schools, the city and even the Big Daddy of Gasparilla, Ye Mystic Krewe: frankness.

Said Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin, veteran of 17 Gasparillas (and one sad substitute called Bamboleo): "I think in the past, if it wasn't a dangerous activity, the police were mindful of it but basically didn't take action unless somebody was going to get hurt."

This year violators will be handcuffed and processed (now there's your buzz kill). Those arrested on misdemeanors will generally be released with a notice to appear in court, not such a good thing on a future resume. Accused felons go to jail.

More frankness: They don't expect a miracle, just a start.

"I really feel it's going to take a couple, three years to change the culture, to show them we're serious," Hamlin said.

Traditions have to start somewhere.

They aim to tame the excesses of Gasparilla 01/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 9:16pm]
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