A divided Tampa City Council gave first approval Thursday to Mayor Bob Buckhorn's proposed "event zone" for the Republican National Convention.
Council members voted 5-2 in favor of the package of temporary measures aimed at keeping in line protesters and other groups that will take to the city's streets during the convention.
Council members Yvonne Capin and Mary Mulhern opposed the ordinance because the event zone footprint remains too large. Both argued it should shrink.
"I didn't see where that was being considered," Capin said. "It needs to be considered."
Capin's colleagues took the opposite approach, expanding the event zone slightly to take in the north end of Harbour Island, which lies across Garrison Channel from the convention site.
Councilman Harry Cohen asked for the expansion because of the proximity to the convention and the potential for an attack on the site across the water.
Harbour Island and Davis Islands had been removed from the most recent draft of the event zone as city leaders focused on keeping the zone within downtown's natural boundaries.
The zone would apply to the non-gated areas of the island west of Beneficial Drive.
The rules for the event zone ban a litany of potential weapons during the four-day convention. The ban covers everything from gas masks and water pistols to knives, brass knuckles and even lengths of rope. Anyone carrying a banned item in the event zone can expect to have it confiscated by police, city officials have said.
At the urging of Councilwoman Lisa Montelione, the city might make it easier to reserve any of the city's parks during the RNC. The event zone ordinance loosens the rules for reserving city parks for events, but only in downtown. Montelione said those rules should apply citywide during the convention.
City officials will have the discretion to decide which parks to make available and when for protests and other events.
Many of the groups that have opposed the event zone over the past month repeated their opposition at the council meeting. Several worried that protesters would be the victims of overeager law enforcement officers brought to town for the event.
"We expect to lead a peaceful march on Aug. 27," said Jared Hamil, spokesman for the Coalition to March on the RNC. "The only violence we expect is from the police."
Tampa Assistant Police Chief John Bennett said training for RNC patrols will focus on giving protesters room to express themselves – as long as they do so legally.
"Our job is to protect free speech and to make sure free speech is available to everybody," Bennett said.
Responding to a question from Councilman Frank Reddick, Bennett said both local and out-of-town police apply a "sanity check" to decision about making arrests.
"We look to not have arrests," he said.
To get arrested, people are going to have to break the law, Bennett said.
Prospective protester Amos Miers said the event zone almost guarantees that will happen.
"They're making innocent people criminals," said Miers, a member of Resist the RNC.
Capin urged everyone to change their views of the groups coming to protest.
"Rather than call them protesters or demonstrators, everyone coming to this city is our guest," Capin said. She suggested setting up hospitality areas and water stations for groups that come to express themselves.
Capin said she would also like to see the city provide space – a parking garage, perhaps – where people without hotel rooms or borrowed couches could sleep.
That suggestion met with little enthusiasm.
Bennett noted that other cities' efforts to create similar locations resulted in large amounts of criminal activity. Patrolling such areas could also tax law enforcement, he said.
The event zone measures will return for a final council vote May 17.
Opponents hope to make more tweaks before then.
"There are still significant changes that we'd like to see," said Mike Pheneger, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
"It's a matter of perspective," he said.
Groups such as Occupy Tampa and Resist the RNC want no limits on their behavior during the RNC, Pheneger said.
In the end, they'll have to accept limits set by the city, he said. But the city will have to hold up its end of the bargain and enforce the rules fairly.
"If they go ahead and implement this ordinance with intelligence and flexibility, they'll do better," he said.