The City of Gulfport may pass an ordinance that prevents the public from accessing places of business at city facilities, citing incidences of people coming into those spaces and harassing employees.
Cathy Salustri

Gulfport employees are taking an increasing amount of abuse from a select few citizens, and city officials are getting ready to do something about it.

“We’re getting into some real serious issues about our ability to protect our employees from attacks,” said City Manager Jim O’Reilly at the July 7 City Council meeting. “Email, verbally, physically, being accosted in public, plus the volume of emails coming in with vitriol language that attacks our employees.”

O’Reilly also noted the “weaponization” of access to city government facilities and the public records law. One unnamed City employee told The Gabber he has received 3,000 emails from a single person in a five-year period.

“We need to have a conversation and I need to put on the record to you that it’s my responsibility to protect your employees,” O’Reilly told the council.

All of the councilmembers voiced their agreement.

“It’s time that our employees and staff be insulated from it,” said Mayor Sam Henderson. “People are being verbally attacked in public while doing their jobs. It’s affecting the ability of the people to do their jobs and work for the city.”

O’Reilly cited one particular incident in which a City employee was accosted at Williams Pier and had to step in front of a state representative to keep the citizen from escalating the situation.

“These are the people you depend on to provide high-level services, but it also impacts the other residents,” he said. “These are the people you hire to run the city and maintain a healthy society in the community.”

As Vice Mayor Christine Brown put it, “our employees just want to go to work.”

“And they don’t need to go to work in a toxic environment,” added councilmember Paul Ray.

No specific action was taken at the meeting, but City Attorney Andrew Salzman told Council he has done some research regarding what the City could possibly do to protect employees in the workspace. An ordinance that was passed elsewhere in Florida, in Punta Gorda, and has been supported in the appellate courts. It addresses what specific areas can be classified as public forums.

For example, a public meeting in the council chambers is always open to the public and citizens can make their own video and audio recordings of the proceedings, but other areas of the building, such as the offices where utility bills are paid, could be designated off-limits for such activity because they are essentially business areas. This could prevent citizens from coming in and berating employees who are simply trying to work.

Council will address the issue at a future meeting.

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