Civility absent at commission meetings

Some leaders want stricter rules on remarks from the public after three people are ejected in one session.

Published February 18, 2007

ST. PETE BEACH - They speak out of turn, verbally attacking one another. Interrupting proceedings with cheers or jeers also comes into play.

In recent months the interaction between residents at many St. Pete Beach commission meetings has seemed more like a contest on bad manners rather than legal proceedings.

What's more troubling is that some think the bad behavior is becoming more common.

During last week's meeting, residents Ruth Ledner, Deborah Schechner and Janet Paarlberg were kicked out of the City Hall meeting chambers for talking out of turn or cheering. It is not the first time Mayor Ward Friszolowski has asked someone to leave the meeting, but three people in one meeting is a new city record.

The hullabaloo at the meetings has ticked off commissioners who think the city should take a stronger stance against repeat offenders and amend its policy on public discussion. Currently, residents are allowed to speak for three-minute intervals and can address the City Commission at the beginning and end of the meeting on any subject.

The city's public discussion policy does not allow residents to wave banners, cheer, clap, or speak out of turn, among other things.

"It is getting worse," said Commissioner Deborah Nicklaus, who is in favor of penalizing residents who misbehave at meetings. "Before the meeting, the mayor clearly stated the city's policy, and these people intentionally broke those rules knowing what the results were going to be."

The clash of opinions at commission meetings has escalated along with the city's ongoing debate on development.

The City Commission has moved to allow taller buildings and mixed-use development as an incentive to hotel developers in order to keep tourism in St. Pete Beach, but residents opposed to any height changes say many of the commissioners are only promoting condominiums and poorly conceived growth.

In most cities, public discussion is only allowed once during a meeting. Some cities have further restrictions. In St. Petersburg, anyone who threatens a City Council member can be banned from City Hall for 12 months.

But St. Pete Beach residents say it is their right to address the commission and that discussion should not be limited.

Ledner, who has been kicked out of a meeting before, was asked to leave when she stood up and reprimanded a resident who referred to Ken Weiss, a Treasure Island attorney, as a low-budget lawyer. Weiss represents Citizens for Responsible Growth, a group of residents that has challenged the city's development plans.

Ledner said the comment was rude and was shocked that the commission allowed it to be said.

"I was out of turn, and I realize that," she said. "But I really didn't care. Someone has to stand up for what's right."

The issue has also stirred up debate about why the bad behavior is getting worse.

Commissioner Ed Ruttencutter said Friszolowski has incited some of the residents to behave poorly by being too forceful.

"If we are polite to them, they will be polite to us, but when he pounds the gravel and threatens to kick them out, that just antagonizes them," he said.

But Friszolowski said residents should be able to adhere to the city's rules.

"People that are yelling out of the crowd, they are repeat offenders," he said. "To say that I am not treating them nicely - it is ridiculous. They don't belong in a public meeting."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.