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St. Petersburg City Council sued for not following rules on long meetings

ST. PETERSBURG — City Council members debated at some length Thursday whether they should study how to become more efficient.

As if to underscore the need, a longtime activist has filed a lawsuit accusing the council of selectively letting some residents speak too long at meetings. Council members are guilty of indulging their chatty sides, too, said Monica Abbott, who filed her lawsuit in Pinellas County Circuit Court on Monday.

"They do this all the time. They go on and on pontificating," she said.

Council rules give speakers three minutes to address the board during open forums. Holding some people to that rule while allowing others more time demonstrates a looseness of the rules — and perhaps the lips — the suit contends.

Abbott spoke for three minutes at the Oct. 2 council meeting, getting about halfway through a slide presentation before a buzzer sounded. But later in the meeting, other speakers received more time to address the council, she said — about nine or 10 minutes, on average.

"I felt my rights had been violated," Abbott said Thursday. "It would be nice if the City Council would adhere to their own rules."

The council meeting that prompted Abbott to sue lasted 10 hours and 13 minutes — the second time a meeting has broken the 10-hour mark since June. During that span, no council meeting — aside from monthly "mini meetings" devoted to awards and proclamations — has lasted less than 4 hours and 40 minutes.

As council members pondered whether to order up a study to streamline their administrative duties, member Amy Foster alluded to the long hours on the dais.

"If they could find some recommendations like shortening our meetings, I'd be all for that," she said.

Abbott also questioned the length of last week's meeting and called it "ridiculous."

Occasionally, there might be some "grandstanding" in the council chambers, council member Charlie Gerdes said.

But plenty of those long hours are spent listening to one another's concerns and seeking consensus, a process that Florida's Sunshine Law prohibits council members from doing behind closed doors, he said.

"I love the Sunshine Law, but it does make the meetings longer," Gerdes said.

Abbott's lawsuit, which she filed herself, asks Judge Pamela A.M. Campbell to force the Jungle Terrace Civic Association to move a planned Autumn Arts Festival this Sunday out of Sunset Park, which she said is too small and environmentally sensitive for the event. She contends she wasn't given a fair chance by the council to make her case that the event should be moved to another park.

On Thursday, the council's Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee decided to assess the idea of an efficiency study some more — by scheduling a workshop to talk about it.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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