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    Clearwater may repeal ban on fortunetellers

    A suit by a Madeira Beach practitioner could force the city to issue permits to astrologers and their ilk.

    By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 3, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- City commissioners might have seen this coming.

    In May 1998, City Attorney Pam Akin recommended that the commission lift a decades-old ban on fortunetelling.

    But in an attempt to keep crystal balls out of Clearwater, commissioners ignored Akin's warning that the ban could violate free speech protected by the First Amendment and opted instead to leave the ordinance in place.

    That decision went unchallenged until now.

    Early this month, a Madeira Beach fortuneteller who goes by the name of Sylvia Mitchell filed a lawsuit in Pinellas County Circuit Court alleging the city violated her rights and cost her business by denying her the chance to apply for a fortunetelling permit in June 2001.

    Clearwater commissioners now are considering repealing the ordinance, which also prohibits professional palm readers, clairvoyants, astrologers, character readers, phrenologists and divine and mental healers from operating in the city.

    Contracted Friday, Mitchell was pleased with the news.

    She hadn't seen it coming.

    "I don't channel inside myself," Mitchell said. "My gift is really for others."

    Clearwater's law conflicts with county regulations, which allow fortunetellers to operate, but only after securing permits.

    Under the Clearwater ban, violators face fines up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.

    Mayor Brian Aungst, while skeptical of fortunetelling in general, said he would follow Akin's advice and support ditching the ordinance.

    "There are people who need that sort of service," he said. "They've got to go somewhere now that Miss Cleo's out of business."

    City Commissioner Frank Hibbard, also said he would likely follow Akin's recommendation, but confessed bias against the industry.

    "I'm not much into fortunetellers," he said. "I won't be plopping down any money and I would encourage everyone else to avoid it so it goes out of business anyway."

    Penelope Bryan, Mitchell's St. Petersburg lawyer, said talk of repealing the ban won't stop her client from moving forward with the lawsuit.

    "If it happens, great, wonderful, it'll reduce the amount of damages significantly," she said. "They lost some real significant opportunity back when the market was depressed ... They had a lot of opportunity slip right through their hands."

    Bryan works for the law firm of Rahdert, Steele, Bryan and Bole, which represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues.

    -- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com.

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