A woman has been setting up a card table and a cooler in front of St. Armands Circle restaurants and businesses to solicit donations for Haitian children and their families since October.
The St. Armands Business Improvement District (BID) and Circle merchants have a problem with that, especially because merchants who pay $1,500 a month or more to lease Circle space receive a fine from the city if they make a homemade sign or solicit business directly outside their shops.
The woman, who could not be reached for comment and was not on the Circle Tuesday due to inclement weather, has told Circle merchants and St. Armands Circle Executive Director Diana Corrigan she has a permit to solicit donations.
When merchants ask the woman to move away from their businesses entrances, Corrigan said, the woman tells merchants she has a permit and is being harassed because of the color of her skin.
“She’s aggressively approaching tourists, and the setup looks terrible,” Corrigan said. “It’s happening seven days a week.”
To make matters worse, Corrigan said merchants are starting to ask if they can obtain a permit that would allow them to solicit in a similar way.
But, at a BID board of directors meeting Tuesday at Sarasota City Hall, Director of Neighborhood and Development Services Tim Litchet informed board members the woman does not have a permit and has been turned down on several occasions for such a permit.
Two Sarasota Police officers present at the meeting told board members they must confer with City Attorney Robert Fournier this week before approaching the woman. The police want a legal opinion on whether forcing the woman to leave the Circle would infringe on her First Amendment rights.
BID board members, whom paralegal Michael Barfield is already targeting for Sunshine Law violations (see sidebar), expressed frustration with the potential violation of First Amendment rights that could result in ACLU ramifications.
“We’re giving food for fodder to Michael Barfield,” said BID Chairman Marty Rappaport. “I think it’s time that this city and other cities start to fight against the abuse of the Sunshine Law and First Amendment that’s going on here. It has got to be addressed.”
Corrigan expressed concern the problem could escalate, attracting others seeking solicitations, which would detract visitors during the height of season.
“This isn’t good for the Circle at all,” Corrigan said. “This woman has her right for freedom of speech, but we need to control something that’s getting out of control.”
The BID also asked city staff for monthly updates from a code officer and a list of permits that the city has given on the Circle so merchants are aware of what is allowed. Code officers will also look into an issue with merchants using trucks with advertisement signage on the side of them that park in Circle spaces to advertise their businesses.
St. Armands BID Sunshine Law update
St. Armands Business Improvement District Chairman Marty Rappaport informed board members at a BID meeting Tuesday that paralegal Michael Barfield’s office has gone through 5,000 of his emails and found nothing that constitutes a Sunshine Law violation.
“They haven’t found a smoking gun, nor will they,” Rappaport said.
In November, Rappaport informed the board that Barfield’s office is looking for any email on private or personal email accounts from BID directors containing the words “restaurant,” “retail,” “Business Improvement District” or “Bob Gibbs.” Barfield also wants any email BID directors sent to St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Diana Corrigan. Corrigan, though, is not under the Sunshine Law through her affiliation with the BID.
The records request, which involves searching Rappaport’s personal computer, came after the BID and the Downtown Improvement District (DID) met Oct. 8 to revisit the possibility of limiting the space restaurants occupy on the Circle and in downtown Sarasota.
Corrigan announced Monday that Barfield is also seeking emails from her association with the St. Armands Landowners Merchants Residents Association. But because the LMRA is not a city-affiliated board, Corrigan does not have to comply with the request.
Rappaport also announced he has resigned from a Circle parking advisory board because he doesn’t want the board’s work “to be targeted further by Mr. Barfield.”
“It’s legalized extortion and it’s affecting those who want to serve the city,” Rappaport said.
Contact Kurt Schultheis at [email protected]