PUNTA GORDA — The Punta Gorda Guitar Army has settled into its new temporary home at the Punta Gorda History Park for Thursday night jam sessions.
But attorney and member Michael Haymans is challenging the city for accusing the group of loitering during a May 26 session at the top of the Herald Court Centre parking garage in downtown Punta Gorda.
“It’s not right that that’s how the system has to work,” Haymans said. “It’s not working appropriately or looking out for interest of good citizens, and is getting held to inappropriate interpretations of the rules.”
For the most part, the group has been meeting at Gilchrist Park — stretching along West Retta Esplanade and Charlotte Harbor — for almost 30 years without having to ask for permits from the city.
On May 26, the Punta Gorda Police asked the group to leave the garage, accusing the group of loitering because they did not have a permit. The group complied.
For almost a month, the grassroots group of local musicians has played at other locations because Gilchrist Park has been stuck with a stench of decaying algae in the harbor, along with reconstruction work on the park’s gazebo.
The algae is a form of cyanobacteria that is decaying, Assistant City Manager Melissa Reichert told The Daily Sun, adding the bacteria will continue to dissipate with rain.
On May 26, the Guitar Army tried to collect on the top level of the parking garage — similar to a brief January 2017 relocation.
“I parked up there next to almost no other cars because we’re not in Punta Gorda’s (busy) season,” Haymans said. “I played some music and left. When I came back later, everyone was gone.”
Punta Gorda Police Chief Pam Davis confirmed the group was asked to leave.
“They were sitting in chairs blocking several spots and making it a possibly unsafe situation for vehicle traffic in the garage,” Davis said. “This would be no different for any large group gathering there.”
After the Herald Court situation, Haymans tried to follow up with the city but said he was ignored.
“I started with Zoning Official Lisa Hannon and didn’t get a phone call back. I called City Manager Greg Murray. No phone call back. I called the chief of police. No phone call back,” he said. “These people are friends of mine.”
Haymans said Hannon eventually called him back and told him they have to have a permit.
Haymans does not agree.
“The ordinance rules for Herald Court Centre include no smoking, no loitering, no littering, and then the next one says, ‘no open alcohol beverages unless it’s a permitted event.’ That was the only one that coupled having a permit,” Haymans said. “I just, in general, didn’t believe what they (the group) did was loitering.”
Haymans attended the June 8 City Council meeting to discuss the issue, but he arrived after the public comments portion — the only way he could present at the meeting.
He also tried to speak to City Attorney David Levin after the meeting. Haymans said Levin told him to write a letter to the city.
So, Haymans did.
“I have two complaints,” he wrote in the June 6 letter to the city, specifically Mayor Lynne Matthews. “Procedural, public comment rules were applied to impose a maximum rather than a minimum opportunity to be heard on matters of civic interest,” referring to the city’s lack of a second public comment opportunity at the end of the City Council meeting.
Many local governments do provide two public comment opportunities, including Charlotte County.
For the second complaint, Haymans wrote “staff misread and misinterpreted rules concerning Herald Court Centre.”
Matthews did not comment on the issue but Levin did release a statement.
“We continue to promote safety, as per our ordinance, in areas where pedestrian and vehicle interaction causes a concern. Certainly areas where cars park fall into that category,” Levin wrote in an email to The Daily Sun. “To use the parking deck, a simple application can be provided so that the city can exclude parking and vehicle traffic where pedestrians exists.”
He wrote the space had been previously used with options others have used.
"As a matter of fact, we have reserved park space for them (the Guitar Army) on nights they use the (Gilchrist Park) facilities, always accommodating them for the benefit of the public,” he wrote.
Haymans told The Daily Sun he believes they will be able to work something out with the city regarding Herald Court’s rules.
He closed the June 6 letter, writing: “The city manager told me clearly that staff wants to work with us to resolve the issue (of Herald Court). I look forward to that.”