Speaker Ejected at Lengthy Council Meeting

Updated 4/7, 12:40 p.m.: And earlier version of this article stated that Gulfport Councilmember Dan Liedtke voted in favor of reinstituting a 7 to 9 a.m. residents-only parking restriction on that block of 59th St. S. He voted against it.

The Gulfport City Council met Tuesday, April 4, in front of a near-capacity audience. It was the council’s first meeting since the March 14 election in which Christine Brown and Michael Fridovich won re-election in Ward 2 and Ward 4, respectively. Both were administered the oath of office before council tackled a lengthy agenda.

The meeting saw some excitement toward the end of the resolutions portion of the agenda, when the council considered Resolution 2017-36, which would authorize the city manager to sign a consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The resolution also called for the establishment of a pollution prevention project and payment of civil penalties related to multiple sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) incidents that have occurred over the past two years due to heavy-rain events such as Hurricane Hermine.

When Mayor Sam Henderson opened up the floor for public comment, Justin Bloom, a representative of Suncoast Waterkeeper, a group involved in a lawsuit against the city of Gulfport, attempted to deliver prepared remarks but was quickly rebuffed by city attorney Andrew Salzman. Bloom, an attorney who’s acting as legal counsel for Suncoast Waterkeeper, refused to return to his seat, insisting that he be allowed to speak as a member of the public outside of his legal role. Again, he was denied, and Henderson asked that he be escorted out of the building by Police Chief Rob Vincent.

“You’re bringing the lawsuit and as defendants in the lawsuit, we can’t allow you to speak,” Henderson said. “It is inappropriate. This is the entity that you are suing. These five people are that entity. This is a conversation that we could have had before the lawsuit was filed, but it’s a little late for that now.”

The Gabber obtained a copy of Bloom’s lengthy prepared remarks. In it, he requests that the consent order not be entered into because its “requirements for an operation and maintenance plan and capacity, management, operation and maintenance (CMOM) program plan are unduly vague.” He also called the consent order “hastily drafted and plainly inadequate.”

After Bloom’s ejection from the council chamber, Henderson called for a vote on Resolution 2017-36; it passed unanimously.

59th Street Parking Restrictions to Return

The first half of Tuesday night’s meeting was dominated by debate over what to do about service and delivery vehicles using the west side of 59th St. S, south of Premier Drive, as a staging area for entry into Pasadena Yacht and Country Club (PYCC). The club does not allow such vehicles to enter its grounds before 8 a.m., so they queue up along 59th St. S, much to the consternation of residents, who complain about the noise and fumes emitted by the vehicles’ idling diesel engines, the trash left behind by their drivers, and the risk they pose to pedestrians and cyclists.

Last summer, in response to a petition as well as written and verbal complaints, parking on that stretch of 59th St. S was restricted to residents only between 7 and 9 a.m.; however, residents who live on 59th St. S north of 25th Ave. S said they were inconvenienced by the new rules, and thus council agreed to lift the parking restrictions at its February 7, 2017 meeting.

Martha Weber told councilors that as the economy has rebounded, construction activity at PYCC has ramped up; hence, the increase in heavy trucks and other service vehicles. She accused PYCC of being inconsiderate to its neighbors by encouraging the use of that block of 59th St. S as a staging area for contractors and other workers.

“It’s really not safe,” concurred April Thanos, who lives nearby on 27th Ave. S. “It seems it’s not OK for them to park in front of the house they’re going to service, but it’s OK for them to park in front of everyone else’s.”

Most of the councilmembers were sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the public.

“I hear a safety issue,” said Councilmember Yolanda Roman, who displayed photos she took of the parking situation. “I don’t want people having to drive on the wrong side of the street because of all of these parked service vehicles.”

Brown, clearly torn about how to remedy the situation, laid blame at the feet of “the people who either don’t have integrity or don’t know the rules.” She said regular delivery and service drivers know that they’re not allowed through the back gate until 8 a.m. and try to time their arrival for just a few minutes before. “We can’t force PYCC to send all of those vehicles to the Gulfport Boulevard gate because that land is owned by the club and the 59th Street gate land is owned by Skimmer Point.”

Fridovich said he favored restricting parking to residents only from 6 to 8 a.m., calling 7 to 9 a.m. “overkill.” However, it was brought up during the discussion that other nearby streets restrict parking to residents from 7 to 9 a.m. and that changing it to 6 to 8 a.m. for just one block of 59th St. S would be confusing.

Councilmember Dan Liedtke, who was appointed vice mayor at Tuesday’s meeting, told his colleagues that he had a plan to make 59th St. S safer for pedestrians. It involves putting in a sidewalk that would connect Wood Ibis Park with 59th St. S via a crosswalk at the intersection with 27th Ave. S.

“I don’t care whether we put up parking signs,” he said. “We are still going to have a safety problem.” Liedtke illustrated his plan with a brief PowerPoint presentation and council agreed to study it in more detail at a future meeting.

After more than an hour of discussion and public comment, the resolution was put to a vote. Henderson, Fridovich and Roman voted in favor of reinstituting a 7 to 9 a.m. residents-only parking restriction on that block of 59th St. S., while Brown and Liedtke dissented. City manager Jim O’Reilly said about 10 signs will be put up to indicate the new restrictions, though he didn’t specify a timeline.

City’s Future Direction Questioned

Much of the public comment at the outset of the meeting focused on a discussion agenda item, titled “Zoning Characteristics and Design,” related to a memo from O’Reilly calling for council to schedule time to address issues such as formula stores, desired character and/or protections for structures, residential density, and new construction. Several speakers stated their desire to see council maintain the unique character, look and charm of Gulfport and avoid allowing it turn into a mainland version of Key West.

“We want to balance what people want to see and experience in our city with the rights of property owners,” Henderson said before agreeing with O’Reilly to set aside time during the April 18 council meeting to further explore topics and issues related to zoning characteristics and design.

Penny for Pinellas Pending

City of Gulfport cultural facilities and events supervisor Justin Shea delivered a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation about the benefits Gulfport has received from the Penny for Pinellas tax revenue program, which is up for renewal this year for the 2020-2030 period. The program, which calls for a 1-percent sales tax increase, generated more than $2 billion for Pinellas County municipalities over the past decade, with Gulfport receiving some $1.4 million.

“We get a lot of value out of that $1.4 million,” said Henderson. Pinellas County voters will decide the fate of Penny for Pinellas on November 7.



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