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Homeless advocate sues City of St. Pete

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Published:   |   Updated: November 29, 2013 at 06:45 AM

One afternoon in March, the Rev. Bruce Wright, an advocate for the homeless, was in downtown St. Petersburg’s Williams Park when he spotted two police officers standing over a man they were about to arrest for failing show up in court on a public drinking charge.

“Why are you harassing that man?” Wright yelled at the officers, whipping out his cell phone to videotape the imminent arrest, according to a St. Petersburg Police report. “Just because he is homeless doesn’t give you the right to do that to him.”

Wright repeatedly refused to keep his distance, and the officers eventually arrested him on a charge of obstruction, while the man they were initially interested in got off the ground, gathered up his belongings and disappeared, the police report states.

What really irked Wright, though, was that police barred him from Williams Park for a year.

In October, Wright, with the help of the Southern Legal Counsel, a nonprofit legal defense organization, filed a federal lawsuit, claiming, among other things, that the police officers’ decision to bar him from the park violated his First Amendment rights, as it banned him from a “quintessential forum,” a place for protests and public speeches.

On Nov. 21, Wright filed another lawsuit in state circuit court that touched on a less lofty issue. This time, he claimed St. Petersburg Mayor Bill foster and the City Council broke the law two years ago when they met behind closed doors to amend the trespassing ordinance eventually used against him in March.

City Council members and Foster were meeting behind closed doors to deal with the fallout from a lawsuit six homeless people — but not Wright — filed in 1990 claiming that, if they were trespassed from a public place such as Williams Park, they were entitled to an appeals process. The 11th Circuit federal appeals court in Atlanta agreed.

The City Council and Foster wanted a rehearing; in the meantime, they held a closed-door session and added an appeals process to the ordinance governing trespassers, according to Wright’s Nov. 21 lawsuit. Attached to the suit is a transcript of the Oct. 13, 2011, closed-door session that aims to back up Wright’s claim.

During the closed-door session, Assistant City Attorney Joseph Patner said he drafted a trespass ordinance providing for an appeals process, according to the transcript.

“He explained that the purpose of adopting these revisions to the ordinance was so that he can argue ... that the case was moot and that plaintiffs’ counsel were not prevailing parties and were not entitled to attorneys’ fees,” the lawsuit says.

On the Oct. 13 City Council agenda, the closed-door session was portrayed as an attorney-client session where “the subject matter of the meeting shall be confined to settlement negotiations” — language typically used when city officials are thinking about giving a plaintiff money.

That wasn’t the case with the suit filed by the six homeless people, though. They didn’t want money; they just wanted the right to appeal if they were trespassed from public property. However, if they were to prevail, their attorneys would be entitled to fees.

When the lawyers and politicians emerged from the closed-door session, it was clear they had worked on fine-tuning an ordinance to bring the city into compliance with the federal appeals court decision.

“We’re now back in open session, if there’s any motions you would like to make,” City Attorney John Wolfe said, according to the transcript.

“I move for approval,” City Council member Leslie Curran said.

Councilman Wengay Newton seconded the motion.

“And that’s moving for approval of [the trespass ordinance] providing for appeals,” Councilman Jim Kennedy said, the transcript says.

Council members treated their brief exchange as if it were the required first public hearing to pass an ordinance, even though no input was sought from the public, Wright’s lawsuit says. The city clerk then announced the next public hearing was on Oct. 20, 2011, even though there had not been an initial public hearing, the lawsuit says.

The newly-revised ordinance was passed the following month.

“The manner in which the official action was taken deprived the public of any contemporaneous knowledge of what was going on and why the City Council was making these amendments,” Wright’s lawsuit says.

The way the City Council enacted the appeal process constituted a violation of the state’s Sunshine laws, the suit says.

Patner, speaking on behalf of the city attorney’s office, declined to comment on the Nov. 21 lawsuit because he had not seen it.

He did say, though, he was confident the city complied with all the requirements of the Sunshine laws at the October 2011 closed-door session.

Wright was able to appeal his trespass order because of the change to the city ordinance passed in November 2011, but his appeal failed. An independent hearing master ruled the city was correct in trespassing him from the park for a year.

Now Wright is appealing that decision.

One of his arguments is that he shouldn’t be trespassed from a park until a hearing is held at which he can contest it. Another is that he was trespassed from Williams Park for a year, even though his obstruction charge hadn’t yet worked its way through the judicial system.

In June, he pleaded guilty to the charge.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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