Council Covers Rules and Cemeteries

Rules and regulations were the focus of Gulfport City Council Tuesday night, May 3, when they attempted to determine what constitutes good demeanor for council.

Council Still at Odds Over Rules 

“We have an obligation not only to the people who attend the meetings, but to the people watching at home and city staff to be concise, effective and efficient,” Mayor Sam Henderson said after backing his previous suggestion of limiting council comments to five minutes. “Considering the day and age we live in and the outlets to share information, this is not the right forum.”

Much of council agreed with the mayor on his suggestion.

“Look at Congress,” Vice Mayor Michael Fridovich said. “They limit themselves to x amount of minutes to ask a person a question before they move on.”

Other changes suggested by council to their decorum included requesting time to present longer council comments and limiting their council web pages on the city website to only a picture, contact information, bio and office hours.

These limitations became a contentious topic as Councilmember Yolanda Roman strongly opposed them.

Roman called the limitations a “form of censoring and that’s where we’re heading.” Roman issued each council member a packet of her five proposed changes, which was dismissed by the mayor as being “mostly … things that are already part of this” and “just a semantics issue” that he does not believe would improve anything.

Roman also addressed what she deemed a problem with respect in city matters, and referenced a letter sent in December 2015 by resident Chuck Broich accusing the mayor of “verbally assaulting” him in October 2015.

“I am moved and always motivated by re-reading Mr. Broich’s letter to us,” Roman said.

The letter can be read on file at city hall. Several times Roman also encouraged residents to watch the videos of past council meetings to see the disrespect she says she has noted.

“The decorum and respect needs improvement here in the city of Gulfport,” Roman continued. “I handled with discretion two separate incidents that I addressed with the city attorney and the city manager in private meetings to what I consider potential sexual harassment and sexual inappropriateness … I didn’t want to say it out loud but I’m saying it.”

City Manager Jim O’Reilly later clarified that Roman came to him not with accusations, but to ensure that sexual harassment is covered by the city of Gulfport’s policies.

“It does not cover elected officials the way it covers city employees,” O’Reilly said on Wednesday. “But they have ways of dealing with it in their own rules.”

Henderson said issues such as these are “covered by HRO.”

As far as council members posting personal and informational links on their city webpage, City Attorney Andrew Salzman tried to dissuade council from doing so.

“I just want to comment that contact information is something that can link you into something else,” Salzman said. “For example if you had a blog, here’s the contact information to see my blog… It’s not the city’s position. It’s that personal council member’s blog.”

These issues have yet to be decided, but a vote is scheduled for the next council meeting.

Lincoln Cemetery Talks Continue  

Prior to the decorum discussion, council was addressed by Brian Bataglia, a lawyer who represents the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP.

Bataglia spoke to council about the NAACP’s plans to get involved with Lincoln Cemetery, the historic African-America cemetery on 58th Street that has fallen into disrepair.

Bataglia stated that the NAACP is looking into the circumstances surrounding the conditions of the cemetery and will make their final decision about involvement soon.

“Whatever the final decision is, it will go a long way in assisting each of you and the city of Gulfport and of course the Lincoln Cemetery,” Bataglia said.

According to Bataglia, 1000 to 2000 veterans from the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea and Vietnam are buried there. At least three Civil War veterans are buried there as well.

“All of us working together can solve this problem,” Bataglia said.

Councilmember Christine Brown, who is also chair of the Gulfport Historical Society, was eager to share that the society is wiling to help. Currently, the city is maintaining basic needs of the cemetery out of pocket, such as mowing the lawn and repairing gravestones. Brown says it will take money for the society to take over.

“We feel like we need a million dollars to take care of it forever,” Brown said. “Maybe we can make it a state park? … The history in there is amazing and we need to save it.”

Bataglia liked the idea that a cemetery committee could be formed by members of the council and citizens to study and present solutions regarding the dilapidated cemetery.

Unfortunately, there is still the legal matter of the cemetery being private property.

“I’m not sure what else we can do as a city legally, because it is private property,”  Fridovich said. “Anybody who goes on there, theoretically, that isn’t supposed to be there, is theoretically trespassing on private property.”

Bataglia knows that getting any control over the property will take work.

“Decisions will have to be made by a lot of different people as it relates to trying to get the property back to a condition that the people there deserve,” he said. “I know we’re going to reach a resolution. We have to.”

Recently, the cemetery has received care from a volunteer group called the Lincoln Cemetery Society, started by local resident Vanessa Grey. The group recently had a cleanup, and Grey has been cleaning and maintaining the cemetery on her own time. Bataglia has not spoken to Grey, but called her work “very helpful.”

A resolution will be drafted by council in the near future to determine what can be done with the property.

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