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Tampa City Council wants to make Food Not Bombs feedings legal

TAMPA — Six weeks after police stopped a Food Not Bombs event and arrested seven volunteers feeding the poor in a downtown park, the City Council wants to try a more hands-off approach to regulating such efforts.

The council voted Thursday to consider an ordinance that would mirror the rule in St. Petersburg, where groups can distribute food without having to get a city permit or obtain liability insurance as long as the event attracts fewer than 50 people. Council members said they would review how the change works in practice after six months.

"We need law and order, but more important, we need love and compassion," said council member Guido Maniscalco, who proposed the change. "I think that's the best and easiest way to approach this without having a repeat of what happened back in January."

On Jan. 7, with thousands of tourists pouring into Tampa for the College Football Playoff national championship, Food Not Bombs was dishing out quinoa and mushrooms to the homeless in Lykes Gaslight Square Park when officers told the volunteers to stop and leave.

When they refused, seven were arrested, taken across the street to police headquarters and given notices to appear in court on charges of trespassing. Police said they had tried to work with Food Not Bombs with no success. Chief Eric Ward said the group's members were well-intentioned but would not follow the same rules as groups such as the Salvation Army.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren later dropped the charges, saying prosecuting people for charitable work would be an inefficient use of resources and would not promote safety, justice or fairness.

Currently, a Tampa ordinance requires permits and insurance for outdoor activities of 25 or more people or if someone wants to distribute food to the public.

In contrast, St. Petersburg does not require a permit to use a park until an activity draws more than 50 people. There, Food Not Bombs has served up meals weekly at Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg with no issues, an official said last month.

The council's vote came after about a dozen Food Not Bombs supporters told the council that interfering with efforts to help the needy was immoral and wouldn't deter similar efforts in the future.

"A lot of the people that we feed are my friends; they're hungry," said William Payton, one of the seven who got arrested. "I'll do it again and again and again, no matter how many times they're going to charge me."

The council hopes to vote on a draft ordinance on March 16. A spokeswoman for Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he hadn't read the proposed ordinance, so it was too soon to say whether he would support or veto it.

Council members also asked for an April 20 report on whether the city could launch a program, similar to one in Albuquerque, N.M., that this year budgeted $181,000 to hire homeless adults to pick up litter or pull weeds for $9 per hour, plus lunch, plus an offer of overnight shelter.

Officer Daniel McDonald, a Police Department liaison to Tampa's homeless population, said the Tampa Downtown Partnership already does something similar, with probably 10 to 15 people employed to help keep downtown clean at any one time. Expanding that program to the city would require the cooperation of the mayor, who, under Tampa's charter, is responsible for hiring and overseeing the operation of city departments.

Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or Follow @Danielson_Times