TAMPA - Sex, nudity and pornography were back on the agenda of the Hillsborough County Commission on Wednesday.
And the board took a first step toward ensuring they stay there.
In a raucous meeting that featured a burqa-clad protester, shouting matches and sexually laden slights, commissioners narrowly approved letting voters answer a nonbinding ballot question next year on whether to toughen the county's anti-nudity ordinance. The measure passed 4-3, with commissioners Kathy Castor, Pat Frank and Jan Platt objecting.
More than two dozen people showed up Wednesday to blast the proposal. Many of them did so by ripping the proposal's citizen sponsor, family rights advocate David Caton, a self-professed reformed porn addict who, in a book about overcoming his compulsion, wrote that his need to masturbate was once more powerful than his need for drugs.
"In this time when national security is of great concern and our economy is unstable, how can we spend time and county resources dealing with an issue that's not an issue," said citizen activist Ciara Jalandoni. "A professed pornography addict is trying to mislead the public about our crime rates and adult nudity because he can't control his compulsion."
Jalandoni was part of a succession of speakers who described Caton as a "chronic" or "compulsive masturbator," referring to an admission he made in a 1990 autobiography.
The residents weren't alone in mocking Caton. Commissioner Pat Frank said his acknowledged past fixation with pornography cast doubt on his credibility.
"That's going to cost us money that we can ill afford to spend to try to keep Mr. Caton's temptations away from him," Frank said. "And that's what this amounts to ... He's on a one-person crusade to satisfy himself."
Frank argued that commissioners should vote a new ordinance up or down, which they could do without a referendum. She charged that putting it to voters was merely an attempt to cloud next year's election with an issue voters aren't clamoring about.
With the exception of Caton, speakers Wednesday were against the proposal. One speaker wore a burqa, suggesting that that's where more conservative elements on the board were leading the county. Nudists from around the region said they were being lumped in with frequenters of strip clubs.
Another speaker, Mauricio Rosas, lept in front of the lectern when Caton finally had an opportunity to speak.
"Shut up," Rosas yelled at Caton. "We don't need these problems you are causing."
Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association, initially proposed a referendum in January to create a stricter anti-nudity law in Hillsborough. The county's anti-nudity ordinance exempts strip clubs, which the courts have historically ruled are protected as free speech.
More recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have upheld nudity bans aimed at addressing public ills. Caton contends that a proliferation of strip clubs in Hillsborough contributes to higher-than-average crime rates, particularly for such things as rape.
"The stats printed are correct," Caton told commissioners Wednesday, though other speakers challenged his numbers.
Patterned after a similar ordinance in St. John's County, the new law would ban any nudity in public places, including commercial establishments, and includes a nearly 400-word definition of "buttocks." Several other counties, including Manatee, Brevard and Orange, have passed similar ordinances.
Caton was challenged repeatedly to prove that his crime statistics and the number of adult businesses in Hillsborough are linked. His response was that the link is only logical.
He said the personal attacks were unfair. It has been 13 years since he published the book Overcoming the Addiction to Pornography after finding religion. Since that time he has led campaigns against gay rights, obscenity on television and, most recently, sales of adult magazines in convenience stores.
"I am personally insulted by the unprofessional comments by Pat Frank," Caton said, adding that he would talk to his lawyers to see if he could sue her for libel.
Commissioner Ronda Storms expressed surprise at the hue and cry, both from residents and some of her fellow commissioners. All that commissioners wanted to do was ask voters' opinion, she said.
"This will be thoroughly debated," Storms said. "What is everybody so afraid of? Why is it you don't want to give the voters the opportunity to express themselves?"
Only one permitted adult strip club exists in unincorporated Hillsborough County, though there are nearly 30 in Tampa. A Sheriff's Office representative estimated that the ordinance would cost $900,000 in the first year for enforcement, particularly if city limits must be patrolled.
Commissioners had slowed the sex talk after waging a monthslong battle against nudity on public access television last year.
The decision Wednesday approves the straw vote referendum in concept. Commissioners asked for more information about the exact language, a better estimate of its costs and consultation with Tampa city officials before adopting the resolution that would put it on the 2004 general election ballot.
Results of the referendum would not be binding, but the commission would use them to weigh whether to actually adopt the ordinance.