Daniel Ruth: Vulgar gadfly highlights decline of public-comment period

Published March 14 2018

Letís face it, when it comes to enlightened discourse, no one has ever confused the Tampa City Council with the Algonquin Round Table. Groucho Marx presiding over a cabinet meeting of the Republic of Freedonia might be more apt.

Still, it appears council is distressed with the tone of some members of the citizenry who like to show up for the chamberís public comment portion of its meetings to vent their annoyance toward our elected representatives.

By law, bodies such as the Tampa City Council, or the Hillsborough County Commission or the Hillsborough School Board must set aside a block of time during meetings to allow any member of the public to speak for up to three minutes.

And the problem is some members of the public actually insist on showing up to take the stage for their three minutes of public scorn. Democracy, itís such a pain in the tuchis.

Usually, unless there is some great, pressing issue on the agenda, the public comment segment pretty much consists of a relatively small group of usual suspects who like to pop off.

One of the regular grumps is Tony Daniel, a 60-year-old black man, who has been inveighing about just about anything for years. And he can get pretty crude, too, often dropping racist and anti-Semitic invective into his profane rants before City Council.

This is like finding yourself trapped in the middle of a David Mamet wannabe festival, only without the literacy.

And that eventually led to an effort by council to impose some order on all the ranting and raving by initiating a policy that, henceforth, speakers will be banned from "launching personal attacks against any city official, city staff member or members of the public" or otherwise engaging in "disruptive behavior including making vulgar or threatening remarks."

Well! That ought to render Tony Daniel practically mute.

It is certainly true no one enters public service expecting members of the public will attend public meetings and publicly denounce them as a complete &^%$*&^, not to mention a &^%$(*&, or words to that effect.

On the other hand one could make the case that no matter how indelicate Danielís speech might be, isnít being called out as a dope sort of part of the job description for holding public office?

To be sure, the Tampa City Council, which is following a similar provision put into force by the county commission, has every right to ban vulgar or profane language during public comment, although what precisely constitutes such speech can be broadly interpreted.

But there is something for Daniel to ponder, too.

Watch these meetings with any regularity and it is pretty obvious that once the public comment portion begins, most elected officials go into automatic eye-rolling. Itís virtually the same people, uttering the same palaver.

Or put another way, memo to Tony Daniel: Nobody, really, nobody, gives a ratís patootie about anything you have to say.

You can rest assured after you finish your three minutes of balderdash, every council member sitting on the dais is thinking: "Thereís three minutes of my life Iíll never get back again."

None of your unhinged words carry any influence. They never have. You are ignored. Baghdad Bob has more credibility. You bring nothing to the table to advance the civic discourse. You are merely perceived as a silly person. So blabber away. Nobody cares.

Itís entirely possible Danielís frequent rambling appearances before public bodies like the Tampa City Council are part of a hidden agenda to land that coveted title of Village Idiot. And who could deny he certainly would seem to be a leading contender?

If Tony Daniel believes the members of City Council are nothing more than a bunch of imbeciles then perhaps he ought to run for the job himself.

Imagine if he won and found himself having to sit and silently endure public comment time, as some hapless oaf went off on a three-minute mouth-foaming diatribe accusing Daniel of everything he has said about City Council.

That might be worth voting for, simply for the entertainment value.