Facing a barrage of concerns about free speech, police over-reach and the city's public image, Tampa City Council on Thursday delayed action on Mayor Bob Buckhorn's proposed Republican National Convention "clean zone" ordinance for two weeks.
"You could drive a tank through all the holes and the constitutional problems with it," Councilwoman Mary Mulhern said, taking a swipe at the city's plans to use armored vehicles to patrol during the convention.
Council members complained they had the ordinance for just a week to review. Councilman Frank Reddick noted he had gotten it just an hour before reports about it appeared in the local news.
The delay gives city officials a chance to address a host of questions raised by members of the public during an hour-long comment period Thursday and later by council members themselves.
"Slow down on this item," said John Dingfelder, a former city councilman who works for the Tampa office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "There's no urgency on this. This is an ordinance that doesn't come into play until August."
Chief among the concerns from the public and the council is the scope of the zone itself.
Buckhorn's 18-page proposal would cast a wide net over downtown venues where the 4,000 police officers on hand will focus their patrols. The zone takes in all of downtown, Davis Islands, Harbour Island, Ybor City and parts of the Tampa Heights, V.M. Ybor and West Tampa neighborhoods.
Within that zone, the ordinance bans the carrying of a range of objects, from gas masks to squirt guns, that could be used as weapons or shields against police. Buckhorn has proposed a broader citywide ban on carrying pieces of wood larger than a ruler, pipes, aerosol cans or containers of human bodily fluids.
Anyone carrying objects from the list — because they're needed for business, for example — may have to justify them to police if asked.
During her turn at the public comment microphone, Susan Shannon of Tampa advised the council: "Don't be afraid, I have weapons on me," then held up several items.
One was a 6-inch long string — a length permitted by the clean zone rules — and a piece 7 inches, which is ruled out by the ordinance.
"What is it about this string that makes it a weapon?" she said, drawing chuckles from the audience. "Though I do have one made into a tiny noose," she said holding one aloft.
State law forbids the city from banning concealed handguns from the clean zone — a fact that got the city ridiculed by MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow on her show Wednesday night.
Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin said the ordinance was written with previous conventions and other major events in mind. Objects included in it have been used by protesters in the past, he said.
"Every one of those items could be used for something that could make this a dangerous situation," said City Attorney Jim Shimberg.
The clean zone's footprint was based on the "event energy" from previous large-scale happenings in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, Hamlin said.
Councilman Frank Reddick said the size of the clean zone had raised concerns among his East Tampa constituents, who worried that it might open them to harassment by police. The zone goes as far north as Columbus Drive. Its western boundary is Rome Avenue. Its eastern boundary is North 22nd Avenue.
Reddick said the zone should hew to natural boundaries, such as expressways.
"No one is going to go north of I-4 unless they're lost," Reddick said.
Many critics at Thursday's meeting suggested that police patrolling the RNC might provoke protesters to create a pretense for arresting them.
Councilman Harry Cohen worried the tone of discussion about the clean zone was becoming overwrought. He noted that speakers that morning — many of them from the Occupy Tampa movement — had described the city's actions as "inane" and "draconian" and had compared the clean zone and Tampa's police with Nazi Germany.
"The rhetoric in this matter really does need to be brought down a few notches," said Cohen, who is Jewish.
He also berated the New York-based National Lawyers Guild, which sent City Council members a letter late Wednesday threatening to fight efforts to regulate protesters' behavior during the RNC. The guild referred to the city as "an ill-informed local government."
"The language that was used by this organization was totally over the top," Cohen said. "To call us uninformed, truthfully, means they're not paying attention to the debate."
Cohen defended city officials' effort to craft an ordinance that keeps safe protesters and police alike. The fact that those rules don't cover concealed weapons isn't the city's fault, he said.
"Our city attorney is doing the best that he and his office can under the constraints that are dictated by some rather, in my view, misguided policies that have been brought forth by Tallahassee," he said.
The state-mandated exemption of guns from the city's laundry list of potential weapons banned from the clean zone left some council members seething about the city becoming the butt of nationally televised jokes.
State law threatens public officials with fines up to $5,000 and loss of office if they attempt to regulate guns in their jurisdictions.
"I don't want us in Tampa to be the script writers for the comedy channel," said Councilwoman Yvonne Capin. "But that is the position where the state legislators have placed us. They have tied our hands."