Fun is legal again in Clearwater. The City Council shed some of its stuffiness Thursday night, relaxing a ban on skateboarding in some sections of Clearwater Beach and dropping an ordinance against casual ball throwing and Frisbee tossing in city parks and on the beach.
Council members seemed to find it surprisingly easy to loosen their grip. They voted unanimously for a skateboarding compromise suggested by Mayor Frank Hibbard, earning applause from the skateboarders and their parents who showed up to respectfully ask for another chance.
The council had earlier banned skateboarding on sidewalks on Mandalay Avenue and Beach Walk after receiving complaints from merchants that skateboarders were a hazard to pedestrians and were rude to tourists. Also, city officials said skateboarders had done about $60,000 worth of damage to benches and walls on the new Beach Walk, which borders S Gulfview Boulevard on the south end of the beach. Police had handed out around 100 warnings and a handful of tickets.
However, skateboarders held a peaceful protest to object to the ban and also attended a meeting organized by the mayor. They argued that the city was punishing all skateboarders for the sins of a few.
Thursday night, various speakers noted that state law forbids skateboarders to skate on roads, leaving them no alternative to sidewalks; that sidewalks on Clearwater Beach side streets often have breaks or gaps that make them impassable for skateboarders; and that the west side of Beach Walk was designed to be a trail for walkers, skateboarders, inline skaters and bicyclists.
Hibbard said he was no longer comfortable with a total ban on Mandalay and S Gulfview. He suggested that skateboarders be allowed on the west side of Mandalay Avenue, which has a wider sidewalk and fewer stores than the east side. He also suggested that skateboarders be allowed back on the Beach Walk "trail," except for the Sundial Plaza. His suggestions were approved unanimously.
Now it is up to skateboarders to conduct themselves in a way that justifies this second chance. Grinding on walls and benches remains forbidden on any public property except the city's skate park at Ross Norton Recreation Complex. Council member Paul Gibson urged the skateboarders attending the meeting to apply peer pressure on their friends to make sure they abide by the rules.
On a second matter at Thursday's meeting, Council member George Cretekos finally won his fight to kill a years-old city ordinance that bans tossing of balls, Frisbees and even badminton shuttlecocks in city parks and on the beach. The ordinance calls those activities "potentially dangerous."
Cretekos found the ordinance ridiculous and fought for months to get his council colleagues to change or repeal it. They ignored him for a while, apparently accepting the city staff's contention that the ordinance was essential to give police the right to stop play that was too aggressive and potentially hazardous to park users and beachgoers.
But Cretekos' persistence — and his desire to toss a ball legally with his godson in city parks — wore them down. Thursday night they gave preliminary approval to a substitute ordinance that is noteworthy for its simplicity and common sense.
The proposed new ordinance states, "Informal activities involving the casual throwing of balls, including but not limited to footballs, baseballs, tennis balls, volleyballs, and shuttlecocks or Frisbees shall be permitted unless such activity creates a threat of physical injury to any person." Organized activities such as team football or baseball games may be played only on athletic fields reserved for that purpose.
The new ordinance, which will require a vote at a second meeting to become law, clearly gives police all the authority they need to stop careless or overly aggressive behavior that puts innocent bystanders at risk. But it gives individuals and families the freedom to enjoy public parks and beaches in the way reasonable people expect.
Elected officials take an oath to protect public safety and sometimes that leads to laws that go too far, unnecessarily impinging on the freedoms of law-abiding people. When it comes to lawmaking, Clearwater officials should have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish and then write laws that go only as far as necessary to produce that result.