Occupy Tampa given 21 days to remove tents from park; that's after major activist gatherings during Republican convention

08/16/12 Janelle Irwin
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Tampa code enforcement is giving Occupy Tampa 21 days to remove their tents from Voice of Freedom Park; but that deadline comes after the Republican National Convention. Members of the activist movement have said they will be vacating the West Tampa neighborhood shortly after the event is over. Council member Mary Mulhern said at a city council meeting Thursday morning, the promise of a move should be enough for the city to back off.

“We’ve already forced the Occupy Movement out of downtown and this is one little park that they’re using due to the generosity of the private owner of that park and they’ve said that they’re going to be leaving after that. They’re waving their white flag already. I don’t want to see the city spending any more time and money – including our time here – going after people who are trying to do something about the inequities that we’re all facing right now.”

Occupiers have permission from the owner to use the private park as an encampment. That has left the city with little recourse. But after some residents of the neighborhood complained about the park being an eyesore and a hub for drug deals, code enforcement stepped in. Jake Slater, Tampa’s director of code enforcement, said they mailed a warning to the owner saying the property was violating zoning ordinances by having tents and illegal signs on the right of way.

“If they don’t commit to compliance within 21-days, a subsequent notice is issued which will have a hearing scheduled which is normally about 45-days out.”

The owner, Tampa business mogul Joe Redner, said he hasn’t gotten that letter yet. Occupier Zoe Alif said the group has worked continually with the city and the neighborhood to keep everyone happy. A broken down school bus has been removed along with all but two tents.

“We’ve been harassed continuously. There’s several ongoing legal cases – or about to be legal cases with the city of Tampa regarding these issues and I just really hope that the city, the police and the government quits harassing us.”

Bernard Jordan, a business owner on Main Street near the park, said there are issues with the park, but didn’t specifically blame members of Occupy Tampa. Jordan added that he has the same problems every summer.

“When the crowd comes, my business goes on inside. When the police comes and disperses those people, my business still goes on inside. The crowd is not affecting my business nor is it helping my business.”

But the park is still stirring debate. City Council member Frank Reddick empathized with West Tampa residents’ concerns that the park has become dirty, unsanitary and possibly unsafe.

“On the website, Occupy people are saying that they’re going to have 3-5,000 people there where they’re going to feed them brunch, they’re going to feed them lunch, they’re going to have concerts in the evening. These are residential people, tax paying people in that community. Do they have the right to live in that community where they pay property taxes and not be annoyed by this foolishness.”

The crowd he’s referring to partially consists of activists from the group Food Not Bombs. Next week is their World Gathering at the Occupy encampment in Voice of Freedom Park. Council member Mary Mulhern said the city has never worked with that group that shares food with large groups. She suggested the city do their part to help keep the park clean and safe during the event.

“This convention which has $50 million being spent on security which I think includes money for things like Port-O-Lets and water – maybe we could find, if needed, a few Port-O-Lets to bring over to that park out of that convention money, have water there for people and, hopefully not prevent people who are charitably bringing meals from feeding people.”

Council member Lisa Montelione echoed her suggestion. But city attorney Jim Shimberg didn’t seem too thrilled with the idea.

“Normally when a group is planning a very large event and working with the city on that – and I know it’s a little different if you do it on private property as opposed to on city property – but normally, the group that’s bringing the very large event in would be responsible for things like the Port-O-Lets and water and things like that.”

And city officials are also concerned about crowds gathering outside the established Event Zone that will be teaming with police presence. According to Tampa Police, areas outside the zone which covers all of downtown, won’t have any fewer officers on patrol, but they won’t necessarily have more. City council members asked who would be liable in Voice of Freedom Park if something bad happened.

“So, if you want to hold somebody accountable, hold Mr. Redner.”

Frank Reddick took a strong stance against the encampment. Voice of Freedom Park owner Joe Redner didn’t appreciate his comments.

“I’d like to tell him, it’s called due process which he ought to study a little bit because you have to go through procedures in order to evict somebody as an individual or the city and they’re all going to be gone by then anyway so, and they’re already gone most of them.” Members of Occupy Tampa and Redner have a tentative agreement to vacate the park in mid-September. The activist group has also said they plan to use some of their funds to re-sod the park because tents and other structures have damaged the grass.

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