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Town Bans Non-residents from Speaking at City Hall

March 19, 1992

MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Residency status is required in this small Gulf Coast town to speak at its public meetings.

The city commission voted 3-2 Wednesday against guaranteeing the First Amendment’s right of free speech. The panel restricted such guarantees to residents only, at least at city hall.

″If we don’t allow people their constitutional right to speak - resident or not - that’s a fascist statement,″ said dissenting Commissioner Tom DeCesare.

The question of whether constitutional rights should be guaranteed for everyone who attends Madeira Beach city commission meetings began last month at a hearing on the citywide prohibition of commercial air boats.

The only one in this St. Petersburg-area city of 4,225 is operated by Gulf Coast Air Boat tours.

Two company employees were denied a chance to speak because they did not live in Madeira Beach and, therefore, could not be directly affected by the air boat’s noise, commissioners said.

One of those prohibited from talking at last month’s meeting was the air boat’s mechanic, Alex Pemberton, who wanted to tell the commission that ways existed to operate the air boat more quietly.

The airboat ″is my only source of income - they’re cutting my throat and taking food out of my mouth when they shut it down,″ Pemberton said afterward. ″I’m definitely affected. This is such a travesty. It’s a farce.″

Commissioner Dewey Leigh submitted the resolution to uphold the Constitution, saying the commission erred in stopping the men from speaking.

Leigh sought the opinion of City Attorney James Yacavone III, who said the commission ″may not restrict public participation at commission meetings to residents of the city.″

Despite that advice, Mayor Marvin Frederich, Vice Mayor Marvin Merrill and Commissioner Paul O’Connor decided that cities should have the right to limit public speech at town meetings to residents only.

″We did the right thing,″ said Merrill.

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