Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Violence at government meetings worried me

I guess I’ve lived a pretty sheltered journalistic life, because most of my time has been spent behind security doors working as a copy editor and page designer.

Still, for 10 months I was the editor and the main reporter for The Bradenton Times, an online news site, and all those skills I learned in college suddenly got exercised. Part of my job was to attend and write about government meetings, and while violence never flared at the meetings I attended, sometimes it felt like things might erupt.

Government meetings can be emotional events, especially if issues of the demolition of an old building, the construction of a new building or the repurposing of a building are involved. Land use meetings could also get touchy, with protests against new residential or commercial developments or changes to the code creating lots of protest and publicity.

I remember one land use change in which both the landowner and the people who lived near the affected property declared themselves “Tea Party Patriots” in e-mails to county officials and demanded that the officials vote the way they wanted. The landowner wanted the right to do what he wanted to do with the property he owned, and the neighbors wanted him stopped.

The most memorable meeting for me was a meeting of the Bradenton City Council in which the topic of discussion was the final disposition of a building on Manatee Avenue West in the downtown area. The building, built in the 1930s, had been built to be and used as a church but had sat derelict for years, drawing vagrants who broke in and moved in at times. The façade of the building definitely stood out, though it too was in very bad condition.

The building was a total mess inside, and a company had gone in and evaluated it for the owners, a couple of lawyers who initially thought they’d fix it up and use it for offices but soon discovered that bringing it up to code would cost far more than they were ready to spend. Their Plan B was to demolish the building and either build something new on the land or sell the land. Amid the recession, though, the latter course didn’t seem likely.

A homeless man had taken up the cause of the building, and others had followed with declarations that the heritage of the area was being demolished, and public need should trump private property rights. Now, I’m a liberal politically but I do believe that property owners have rights. It was sad that the building was being considered for demolition, but an engineer’s report presented at a City Council meeting showed that the building was beyond saving.

The owner of the building next door wanted the building demolished, noting that it was too close to his building and that the homeless who lived there harassed his employees.

The homeless man who had taken up the cause and several local ministers had totally impractical plans for the building if the city would just seize it and give it to them. There was a lot of talk about a “24-hour prayer center” and other activities, but no one had the money to make any of that work.

The homeless man admitted that he was mentally ill, had visions and conversed regularly with god and Jesus. He had stood a vigil outside the building, and I had talked to him a couple of times and he would start to cry and declare that the destruction of Bradenton would be imminent if the church was knocked down.

A woman came to the meeting and said god had told her to come and stop the demolition of the “church,” and that the owners were evil because one time they had hosted a “haunted house” for Halloween.

There were several police officers in the audience, and I thought that maybe they were called in to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.

As it turned out, things didn’t get out of hand and the resolution to allow the owners to demolish the building passed 4-1, amid dire warnings of destruction that have not taken place.

What was surreal about the meeting was the man who approached the podium and started talking about the city’s need to hold a “manatee parade” through downtown. Everyone was leaning forward, waiting to hear what he had to say and how it would relate to the Bradenton Tabernacle.

Finally, someone asked about the connection, and he said there was none but he thought that open comment on any topic was still going on.

I will admit it: sometimes I miss those old days of covering local governments, but I know the copy desk is where I belong.

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December 26, 2010 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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