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10/2/2008

Columns > Happytown

HAPPYTOWN

 

Remember how the city tried to keep the homeless out of sight by passing a law that required you to get a permit to have a cookout in a public park? Remember how the city tried to prosecute someone who fed 26 homeless people in Lake Eola Park – one more than the law allowed – and got its ass kicked in court? Remember how we said this whole exercise, pushed by the city’s allegedly “progressive” council member, Patty Sheehan, was idiotic and mean-spirited?

It feels so good to be right.

On Sept. 26, Judge Gregory Presnell struck down the city’s ban on feedings in public parks. He ruled that the feedings, organized by Orlando Food Not Bombs, were political speech protected by the First Amendment. The city said feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park increased crime, litter and overcrowding. The judge called bullshit on that, because the city couldn’t prove it.

Presnell also said the ordinance violated the religious rights of the First Vagabonds Church of God, a homeless ministry that hosts services in Langford Park and feeds people. On those grounds, as well as OFNB’s free speech claim, Presnell ruled that the city’s ordinance was unconstitutional, and forbade them from enforcing it. He also scoffed at the notion that the city was providing an adequate alternative at its Sylvia Lane feeding site.

Best line in his ruling: “The court finds that there is no rational basis for this ordinance.”

In response, the city put out what could be quite possibly the most milquetoast statement ever. To wit: “This ordinance was supported by some members of the community, but was opposed by others.” Insightful.

The city noted that while this case made its legal rounds, it hadn’t enforced the ordinance. And strangely, downtown didn’t crash and burn or get overrun by well-fed transients.

Orlando officials haven’t decided if they are going to blow more of your tax dollars appealing the ruling – currently the city is on the hook for about $200,000 in fees it owes the plaintiff’s attorneys – or whether it will try to tweak the ordinance to make it more constitutionally palatable. We sort of suspect that Sheehan and Mayor Buddy Dyer aren’t done trying to hide the homeless. No “activist judge” will stand in the city’s way of keeping the homeless out of sight!

Ugh. Old WALNUTS! McCain may have “suspended” his campaign last week in favor of stumbling through Capitol Hill with his Depends showing, but his party sure hasn’t dropped its sleazy tactics.

On Sept. 24, the Republican National Committee staged a national conference call for the media in an attempt to stir up support for their anti-ACORN agenda. Their contention? That ACORN, a nonpartisan community group, was running afoul on their voter registration campaign in an effort to seize victory for Obama. Among their examples were two suspect voter registration cards in Seminole County, reported the Miami Herald. (Those two cards were flagged by registrars.)

RNC chief legal counsel Scott Cairncross threw some heat during the call, according to the Herald, claiming, “This organization is not new to this game. They are a quasi-criminal Democrat-affiliated organization that harms the elections process.” In other words, they register a lot of black people who don’t vote for Republicans.

This political dustup isn’t new, either; Republican operatives have been alleging the same thing since 2004, thinly veiling their racism in attacks on part-time ACORN employees.

Leroy Bell, a board member of Florida ACORN, issued the following response: “It’s not right for Sen. McCain to attack and disparage civic groups like ACORN for helping Latinos, African-Americans, young people and low-income citizens register to vote. Sen. McCain and other politicians would do better by coming out and talking to some of the hundreds of thousands of new voters joining the rolls and appealing for their support.”

McCain’s friend Sen. Lindsey Graham popped up on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Sept. 26 claiming that ACORN was evil because they would be the real beneficiaries of the Wall Street bailout. Oh, and Graham also submitted that ACORN was being “sued for voter fraud” in Florida. Which they are not. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Sad news to report: David Wasserman, once a renowned First Amendment attorney who defended the strip clubs and dance halls that the prudes who run this town would like to eradicate, took his own life Sept. 25, according to friends.

Even as he went out, Wasserman was still swinging. Just a few weeks ago, he filed a federal lawsuit against Lake County, alleging that the county was unconstitutionally trying to shut down his business – Fantasy Gentlemen’s Club, the county’s only booby bar.

Friends say that Wasserman had seen more than his share of troubles since 2004, when he lost his law license after getting busted for growing pot in his Heathrow apartment. Still, it’s worth remembering that Wasserman was on the side of angels, someone who fought for the unpopular and stood up to the powers that be, win or lose. For that, he’ll be missed.

We are just so full of anxiety lately. Is our 401(k) worthless? Is John McCain insane? President Sarah Palin? We’ve chewed our nails to stubs, we’re out of Xanax and the cat won’t come near us anymore. So thank God we came across the University of Central Florida’s latest virtual widget.

UCF’s Anxiety Disorders Clinic helps people overcome debilitating fears with a head-mounted display that simulates the scenario you fear. Once they immerse you in that scary virtual reality, a counselor talks you through it.

“If people are afraid of flying, we have the capability to walk them through a terminal, get on a plane and make the plane take off,” says Deborah Beidel, the UCF psychology professor who directs the clinic.

The clinic is recruiting adults for a program funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and treatment is free if you qualify. Call 407-823-3910 for more info.

No word on whether they could treat the fear that keeps us up at night: another Republican administration. That’s too frightening to confront, even in virtual reality.

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