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Five ways to stay awake in City Council meetings around the bay

Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater all have their quirks and characters. A quick guide to taking in a City Council meeting in the bay area's three largest cities.
Supporters of Lee Elementary school line up to address the Tampa City Council on Feb. 15, 2018  Photo Credit: Charlie Frago
Supporters of Lee Elementary school line up to address the Tampa City Council on Feb. 15, 2018 Photo Credit: Charlie Frago
Published Mar. 28, 2018
Updated Mar. 28, 2018

I've listened to close to a thousand of hours of discussion, presentations and the occasional knock-down-drag-out fight at City Council chambers in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa over the past five years.

Some of it has been lively. Occasionally eyes mist and voices clot with emotion (Looking at you, St .Petersburg council member Charlie Gerdes).

There is the occasional noisy protest. Once one led to an evacuation. 

And, well, Paul Congemi. Although the perennial fringe candidate's infamous racist tirade last year occurred in St. Petersburg's council chamber, it was during a mayoral forum, not a council meeting.

If you're curious about going to a meeting, you're probably not this Reddit user, u/feeln4u,  who recently commented on one of my stories: "Imagine having such a lack of chill that you voluntarily attend council meetings."

To be fair, almost every meeting contains lots of mind-numbing detail. Think comprehensive plan amendments or vacating alleys.

Like baseball or fishing, the joy of City Council arrives in tiny dollops of pleasure while waiting for the occasional jolt of excitement. Here are a few tricks to help while away the hours:

Strap yourself in for public comment:

The wild card of council meetings. Three minutes for each speaker and those 180 seconds are often entertaining, shocking, heartbreaking or a pick 3 combo.

St. Petersburg has Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, a longtime activist. By  not always observing decorum, she keeps things lively.

But Tony Daniel in Tampa has raised the bar for City Hall gadfly to a whole new level. Council members recently changed their rules to limit vulgar, threatening speech for which Daniel has become synonymous.

Watch the body language.

City Council members are politicians, practiced in keeping their cool. But tempers sometimes flare. And members of the public, occasionally let their emotional flags fly, too. But it's not always anger; impatience and boredom are more frequent visitors.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, the only major city Bay Area mayor who is a regular at council meetings, is often short on patience with what he perceives as nonsense. And Tampa City Council chairwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin doesn't hesitate to show her non-verbal displeasure with rambling or pretentious presentation

Listen to the "City Hall" humor.

The quips delivered in council chambers might fall flat in a comedy club, but timing is everything. And after several hours of discussion on, say, historic preservation, jokes are a welcome relief. Having someone on the dais with a big laugh and a willingness to use it always helps (Looking at you again, Charlie Gerdes).

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse had a dry sarcastic wit that frequently killed in the chamber, but Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda gets top honors. Barely a sentence comes out Miranda's mouth that doesn't contain a quip. Last week? "I don't want to split hairs, I have very few left," said the 78-year-old, patting his balding pate. Not his best material, but he'll likely deliver several dozen more in the months to come.

 Get the feel of the room.

Clearwater's cavernous council chamber is usually close to empty. And it's dark. That makes it the hardest place to stay awake as the meetings are in the evenings.
If you ever tire of the summer heat on a Thursday, amble on over to St. Petersburg City Hall. It's  the prettiest council chamber in Tampa Bay, complete with huge portraits and good light.
It's also freezing. So cold that city staff have been known to use a tiny space heater. You're a fool if you don't bring a jacket. Some have been known to fantasize about hats and mittens. Only council member Amy Foster's frequent visits to the thermometer prevent ice from forming.

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Why not? It's a good way to take notes and keep people informed. Occasionally you'll enter into an exchange with people watching a lively debate on TV or a few feet away. Feel free to follow me @CharlieFrago to keep up to date on Tampa City Council and Clearwater is ably covered by Tracey McManus at @tromcmanus. Stay tuned for the new St. Petersburg City Hall reporter.