Rich versus poor. Homeowners versus homeless. Young versus old. The June 20 City Commission meeting devolved into a session of civil disobedience, name-calling and physical threats.
At issue were several items that homeless supporters and advocates felt were aimed at ridding the city of homeless people.
The removal of benches at Selby Five Points Park, a petition to eliminate homeless feedings at the same park, an ordinance outlawing panhandling within 20 feet of parking meters and the banning of smoking in city parks were all on the agenda and all had large turnouts of supporters and opponents.
A former mayor’s refusal to stop talking when his allotted time was up led to a few more incidents of disobedience, cursing and a threat of violence.
Richard Martin, a former Sarasota mayor, is now executive director of the Suncoast Partership to End Homelessness.
He expressed incredulousness several times throughout the day at the steps he believed the city was taking to push homeless men and women out of the area.
“I’m ashamed that this agenda has focused so much on the rich and punished the poor and homeless,” he said.
The battle lines were drawn.
In the audience watching the proceedings were downtown residents on one side, and on the other side were several homeless people, a few of their advocates and a handful of New College students, who feed transients in the park.
The room erupted in applause after each of about three-dozen citizen speakers stated his point-of-view.
“We’ve heard a lot of snide comments about downtown residents,” said downtown resident Frank Brenner. “We live there and see (problems) day in and day out. You’re not going to get a lot of complaints from North Port. Why don’t (New College students) feed them at New College?”
Said New College student Roger Butterfield: “We don’t do it at New College, because we want to present it to the public.”
Each citizen was given two minutes to address the commission. At about 10 p.m., Martin sat before commissioners for the final time.
“I’m speechless,” he said. “But not quite.”
Martin then explained his opposition to what the commission was doing. When his two minutes were up, he kept speaking.
Others at the table waiting their turns asked him to stop.
“I’m going to keep going,” Martin said.
People in the audience began shouting for him to be quiet.
He kept going.
Mayor Suzanne Atwell asked him to stop several times, before she became angry, banged her gavel and called a recess.
During the recess, a heated argument broke out.
A homeless man, Rodney Langley, began shouting at two downtown residents who were telling Martin to stop talking.
Langley got out of his seat and began pointing in Brenner and Jim Lampl’s direction.
“You don’t want a piece of me,” Langley yelled. “I’ll handle it like a man.”
A policeman led Martin out of the room.
After Langley’s outburst, one homeless man called a resident an obscene name, and another told a resident that he should move if he didn’t like it downtown.
The next day, Martin explained his motives to the Sarasota Observer.
“I saw unanimous vote after unanimous vote and closed ears on the commission,” he said. “I felt I needed to put an exclamation point on what I was saying.”
Martin said the lack of serious dialogue on homeless issues is disappointing.
Commissioner Willie Shaw had expressed hope before the fireworks that a discussion would lead to community healing and some solutions for both sides.
However, it appears any broad community consensus will take some time.
Casey Colburn, an attorney with an office across the street from Selby Five Points Park, told commissioners: “You will not find a solution by making this a rich versus poor.”
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].