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Tampa City Council ponders the fate of Occupy Tampa in park

Published Jul. 20, 2012

TAMPA — Eleven days before the Republican National Convention, the City Council will receive a report saying whether it has the power to shut down Occupy Tampa's headquarters, creating a potentially explosive controversy just as 15,000 protesters flood into town.

A showdown looms in West Tampa, where some residents and business owners have grown weary of the activists and homeless people occupying Voice of Freedom Park in the Main Street business district. Along with their tents, barbecue smoker, coolers and even a relocated library counter, Occupy Tampa protesters also have brought piles of garbage, skirmishes and other nuisances into the park, residents say. More than 100 people signed a petition asking the council to evict the group, and on Thursday council members discussed whether they should — or can — intervene.

Strip club owner Joe Redner owns the park and gave Occupy Tampa permission in December to use it after the group repeatedly clashed with police at a downtown public park. The ownership issue makes it unclear what power the city has, which is why council members ordered a report due on Aug. 16 from police, code enforcement, the city attorney, zoning and the Hillsborough County Health Department.

Council member Lisa Montelione questioned the report's timing and wondered if the city would be able to enforce anything that close to the RNC because of the number of protesters expected in town by then.

What was clear Thursday was that at least one council member agreed with the complaints.

"I have questions about the sanitary conditions out there," council member Frank Reddick said. "If you go down there on a Saturday afternoon and it's 90-some degrees, it smells like a skunk out there."

Mike Vannetta, president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association and crime watch, wondered how much worse the sights and smells will grow when additional activists begin trucking in.

"Our little neighborhood can't handle an influx of a whole bunch of people. It's going to be a parking problem, and it's going to become more and more unsightly," he said. "It's a park, not a tent city. I'm hoping it can be a park again."

Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin insinuated that residents are using Occupy Tampa as a scapegoat for other problems, such as noise and rowdy bars, that have existed in the neighborhood for years.

"This is a lot of hype," she said. "A lot of hype."

Occupy Tampa says the petition and complaints are a ploy to oust the group to clear away any opposition to redevelop West Tampa and displace lower-income residents.

"Occupy Tampa has, as long as we've been present in the park, had a track record of beautifying the West Tampa community," said Nathan Schwartz, 20, a University of South Florida senior majoring in psychology.

"Ever since we've moved to Voice of Freedom Park, we've worked to beautify the area," Schwartz said. "People who are direct neighbors of the park have had no problems with us and in fact we've helped each other out during our stay."

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Supporting his claim was a report from Dennis Rogero, city director of neighborhood empowerment, who told council members that the city has received relatively few complaints — 13 — about the camp.

"Either the complaint has been unfounded," he said, "or what we've found has been complied with already."

But police calls in and around the park have doubled from 210 to 425 over six months once Occupy Tampa moved there, Capt. Charles Courtoy told council members. That prompted Capin to ask him to come back with specifics of each call.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368.