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Carriage operator may be reined in

(ran NS, S editions of B)

Joe Blute's business dealings with the city of St. Petersburg sound like a romance gone bad.

"They court you, they court you, they court you, and then they drop you," said Blute, who for two years has trotted tourists around downtown in horse-drawn carriages.

In the start, the relationship was a good one and the city signed a short-term license agreement with Blute's horse and carriage company, Buckingham Carriage Services, for rides off The Pier.

But complaints about the practice piled in from national and local animal rights groups, and the city didn't renew its agreement after a probationary period of 120 days ended last summer. Now, city lawyers are drawing up a law to ban the carriages everywhere during the scorching summer months.

"This whole thing goes on and on," Blute said. "They don't take care of their business people at all."

Ironically, Blute is also an employee of the city. He is an operations supervisor at Al Lang Stadium and operates the horse business in his spare time.

Fighting City Hall doesn't bother him, he said. "It used to scare me, but it's gone on so long."

Not long ago, Blute was told he could not pick up or drop off passengers along city rights of way, he said. He followed the rule for a while. More recently, though, he got fed up _ and started getting riders again along the streets, he said.

"Let them fine me," he said. "I'd rather have a judge decide this."

Animal advocates say they believe a proposed summertime ban, at least, is needed. "We'd like an overall ban," said Gail Rassier, executive director of the St. Petersburg Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The business poses clear dangers and health risks to animals and people, Rassier said. Automobile exhaust in the noses of the horses, the potential for wrecks and the grueling Florida heat are all concerns, she said.

The issue has reached national proportions, she said, with groups in cities across the country proposing legislation to restrict such rides. In Pinellas, Treasure Island and Kenneth City recently have banned the practice altogether.

To Blute, it's an old-fashioned, romantic way to see the city or celebrate a wedding. Blute said he doesn't operate when it's too hot.

"If they try to ban us, they're opening Pandora's box. Can dogs go outside in the summer? Can cats go outside in the summer?"

Blute thinks the issue should go to a referendum before the voters. Or perhaps, he said, he should run for council.