Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — For the second time in eight years, the City Council again passed an amendment to its trespassing ordinance on Thursday after losing a long legal challenge.
So ends a saga that began in 2011, when city officials were desperate to alleviate the large homeless population that had grown downtown.
"I feel vindicated," the Rev. Bruce Wright, who filed the successful legal challenge, told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. "I feel that justice was served, at least on the Sunshine Law violation."
The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled last month that in adopting the amendment in 2011, the council violated the state's Sunshine Law requiring open government meetings and public access to government records.
The council, the court said, used a private attorney-client, or "shade," session meant to discuss settlement or litigation issues, to strategize about the amendment that would let people appeal a trespass warning designed to remove the homeless from public areas.
In response to the appellate court ruling, on Feb. 15 the city ordered police officers to stop issuing trespass warnings on city-owned property until the council could act.
Council members re-adopted the amendment, but first advocates vowed to continue their fight for the rights of the homeless.
Rose Roby, co-chair of the Pinellas County Green Party, read a statement from Wright, whose lawsuit upended the city's amendment.
"We are here today because you are now having public hearings about this law only because you got in trouble for having them in secret," Wright's statement said.
"As a Christian minister, it is my mission and call to both work with and defend the oppressed classes of the poor and the homeless, or I prefer to call those experiencing homelessness, the houseless. And, I will do everything in my power, as will our allies, to stand in solidarity with the houseless."
Wright was arrested by police in 2013 for what they said was obstructing the arrest of a man with an active warrant. He was charged with one count of obstruction and one count of resisting arrest without violence. The criminal court withheld adjudication. But Wright was banned from Williams Park in downtown for a year.
He challenged the arrest. A federal appeals court ruled that police did not violate his First Amendment rights and that the ban was lawful. But Wright said the council not only violated the Sunshine Law when it met in private back in 2011 to discuss the amendment, members did so by approving it without a public hearing.
Homeless advocates will keep fighting City Hall's effort to address homeless issues with punitive ordinances and with police officers, Roby told the Times:
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"We have trespassing laws that essentially make it illegal to rest, to be able to eat, to be able to even use bathroom facilities, which are part of the daily plight of people without homes."
Help may come from an unusual source. The city owes Wright's attorneys legal fees. So City Council member Steve Kornell made a motion suggesting that the city negotiate with them to use that money to fund housing for the homeless. The measure passed unanimously.
Executive assistant city attorney Joseph Patner still disputes Wright's claim. He said the city did give proper public notice of the 2011 meeting.
"This meeting, we believe, was fully compliant with the law at the existing time," Patner said. He said that a 2014 lawsuit accusing St. Pete Beach of violating the Sunshine Law during a shade meeting changed that.
Patner said the city gave public notice of the ordinance amendment, including using the then-St. Petersburg Times.
"In fact, somebody spoke at the public comment period at the second reading, "Patner said, adding that the City Clerk has documentation of the man who spoke. "And it wasn't until after all of these things that the ordinance was ultimately adopted."
Wright, however, is adamant that there "was no opportunity for public comment."
"I would have to say they were lying," he said. "They did not follow the Sunshine law, otherwise they wouldn't have lost this case. This has happened all too often in Florida politics, where decisions are made without public input."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.