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In Clearwater, outgoing mayor’s obscene gesture flouts push for decorum

Brian Aungst Sr. apologized for raising his middle fingers toward a protester, the culmination of months of confrontations.
 
Outgoing Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. says farewell at the City Council meeting on Monday at the city's Main Library downtown. A short time later, Aungst exchanged obscene gestures with a man in the audience who has criticized him and tested the council's decorum rules.
Outgoing Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. says farewell at the City Council meeting on Monday at the city's Main Library downtown. A short time later, Aungst exchanged obscene gestures with a man in the audience who has criticized him and tested the council's decorum rules. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published April 3|Updated April 4

After his time as Clearwater mayor ended on Monday and he gaveled a work session into recess, Brian Aungst Sr. stood behind the City Council dais and turned to a man in the audience who was giving him what Aungst termed the “one finger salute.”

Aungst returned the gesture, raising a middle finger. Then he set his things down so he could raise both of them.

The standoff was the culmination of months of confrontations between Aungst and two activists who have challenged the council’s newly adopted rules of conduct. The rules forbid name-calling, interruption of speakers and obscene gestures during council meetings — including extending the middle finger.

Aungst was preparing to leave the dais when he first tried to ignore the gesture from Michael Taylor, an activist from Port St. Lucie who tests cities’ responses to First Amendment challenges and posts the videos to YouTube for income.

But since Mayor Bruce Rector had been sworn into office minutes earlier, Aungst said he felt free to respond to Taylor during the recess in a way that he had been unable to for months.

“It was just me as an average citizen letting him know how I felt about him when I was no longer the mayor,” Aungst said. “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I called (City Manager Jennifer Poirrier) later and apologized.”

In a moment captured by protester Michael Taylor and posted on YouTube, former Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. raises two middle fingers toward Taylor after his time in office ended at a work session on Monday.
In a moment captured by protester Michael Taylor and posted on YouTube, former Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. raises two middle fingers toward Taylor after his time in office ended at a work session on Monday. [ YouTube ]

After former Mayor Frank Hibbard resigned in March 2023, the council appointed Aungst, who had served as mayor from 1999 to 2004, to finish the last 11 months of Hibbard’s term. Aungst proposed the adoption of the council’s decorum rules in August after months of appearances from Taylor and Clearwater resident Daniel Holuba that he said interfered with the city’s ability to conduct business.

But Taylor continued to challenge the rules that he said are unconstitutional. So did Holuba, who has attended meetings for years to criticize actions by city officials and the police.

At the lectern during the public comment portion of a meeting in November, Taylor said Aungst had “thin skin,” that politicians needed to be changed like diapers and held his two middle fingers up. He lingered in front of the council with the gesture after his three minutes had expired, and Aungst gaveled him out of order and asked police to escort Taylor out.

Michael Taylor, a YouTube creator who challenges police and local governments on First Amendment issues, prepares to speak during public comment at a Clearwater City Council meeting on March 18 at the city's Main Library in downtown.
Michael Taylor, a YouTube creator who challenges police and local governments on First Amendment issues, prepares to speak during public comment at a Clearwater City Council meeting on March 18 at the city's Main Library in downtown. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

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Aungst also told Taylor that he was in violation of the rules for sitting in the back of the room with a shirt that read “F--k Brian ‘Hitler’ Aungst” and insults directed at three other city officials during a meeting in January. The council rules prohibit meeting attendees from wearing clothing “that contains obscenity.” Taylor approached the dais saying the First Amendment protected his right to wear the shirt. Aungst asked police to remove him, and Taylor and yelled that he’ll “be waiting for you outside, mother-f--ker.”

In March, police arrested Holuba during a council meeting after Aungst gaveled him out of order and he refused to leave. During his three-minute public comment, Holuba had criticized the police department and accused two city officials of having conflicts of interest.

His last comment as he turned to leave was: “I do aggravate the thin skin of Brian Aungst.” For that, the mayor gaveled him out of order. When Holuba turned to walk back to the lectern, Aungst asked police to remove him. When he refused to leave after warnings, he was arrested and charged with trespassing.

“I had every right to say what I said,” Holuba said in a later interview.

Daniel Holuba is escorted out of a Clearwater City Council meeting in handcuffs on March 7 by Clearwater Police Sgt. Jarred Stiff.
Daniel Holuba is escorted out of a Clearwater City Council meeting in handcuffs on March 7 by Clearwater Police Sgt. Jarred Stiff. [ Tracey McManus ]

On Tuesday, Aungst said he does not regret the way he enforced the rules. He said the city has to be able to conduct its business without interruption, and the rules were supported by city staff.

”I had to be the bad guy, which is fine,” Aungst said.

Work sessions, like the one where Rector was sworn in as mayor, do not include public comment portions like regular meetings. In an interview on Wednesday, Taylor said even though he could not address the council, he still wanted to attend for Aungst’s last meeting “to say bye.”

He said he “didn’t care” that Aungst returned the middle fingers to him.

If he could have spoken at the lectern “I probably would have told him even though you might not like what we have to say, it’s your job to just take it,” Taylor said.