Correction 11/19/20 2 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated that organizations that apply for special events permits in Gulfport would need to benefit the “Gulfport Merchants Chamber and Gulfport-based organizations.” This was incorrect and the Gabber apologizes for the error.

On Tuesday, November 17 Gulfport City Council returned to City Hall for one night only. For the remainder of the calendar year, council will hold meetings at the Catherine Hickman Theater. Council also decided to resume Zoom call-ins for public comment. 

This means public comments are no longer allowed via email; participants must call in.

“We were only allowed to have these meetings virtually as long as the governor’s order stood,” explained Mayor Sam Henderson. “The order was not renewed.”

COVID cases continue to soar in Florida and across the country. Mayor Henderson virtually attended the meeting from his home as both he and first lady Laura Henderson have contracted COVID-19; their daughter tested negative. 

Virtual Tree Lighting

For almost 100 years, Gulfport has held the annual holiday tree lighting on the first Monday of the month in December. City Manager Jim O’Reilly announced that the celebration will now be virtual. 

“I don’t agree,” Councilmember Christine Brown responded immediately. 

“We don’t have the number of small children available to put them in that environment at the greeting of the visitor from the north,” said O’Reilly. “If council would like to provide additional direction, I would place the one caveat that it probably wouldn’t be child-friendly and close to each other. If you would like to light the tree and maintain social distancing, we can see what we can do to facilitate that.”

“This has been going since the 30s and I do not approve of canceling the tree lighting,” responded Brown. “We cannot take this holiday away from our children and I will not vote for cancelling it; it’s too important.”

“Since the 1930s we haven’t had a pandemic,” Vice Mayor Michael Fridovich shot back. “I don’t think people will lose their interest in Christmas, Santa Claus and everything else if we do something on a virtual basis for one year.” 

“I think we can make Santa Claus out and about on that evening when the lights come,” said O’Reilly. 

“The usual number of people we have tightly packed together, I’m not comfortable inviting people to that because of the contagion of this thing,” said Henderson. “When we do something, then people feel like it’s safe, because we’ve said ‘Yeah, come on out.’”

Council agreed that Santa will make an appearance when the lights come on Monday, December 7. The city will put out further guidance on this alternative celebration once the details are worked out. 

New Year’s Eve Fireworks 

After postponing the July 4th fireworks display, the city is facing a loss of $5,000 to cancel the fireworks completely, or an additional charge of $3,750 to postpone the fireworks display past December 31, 2020. 

The city included $25,000 for the 2020 fireworks display in the 2020 Community Development Waterfront Redevelopment District’s annual operating budget. 

Council decided to go ahead with the fireworks display, with the caveat that if there is a sharp increase of COVID-19 numbers and it becomes apparent that it will not be a good idea, the city will cancel. 

The city will not advertise the fireworks display outside of Gulfport, and the streets will stay open. 

“I support giving this a shot,” said Henderson. “It’s a nice option for people to get outside in cooler weather.”

“We don’t want to hype this; keep this for the locals,” said Councilmember Paul Ray. “I think it’s a great thing and a way to start out on a positive note for 2021.”

Gulfport will not be the only show in town: Treasure Island and Clearwater also plan firework displays. 

BCYC Lease Discussion Postponed 

Due to such a large turnout for the Boca Ciega Yacht Club lease discussion and the lack of space at City Hall, council decided to postpone the discussion until Tuesday, December 1. During public comment, Rear Commodore Jennifer Buckley agreed postponing the discussion was the best decision due to space constraints. 

Sanitary Sewer Systems and Lift Upgrades 

City Manager Jim O’Reilly reported that there were no sewer discharges into the bay or into the storm drain system from Tropical Storm Eta. 

“We manually controlled the flow and we also had Vac trucks onsite as our protocol now calls for,” said O’Reilly. “Our lift stations performed admirably.”

Council also approved Lift Station No. 2 Force Main Extension and Lift Station Improvements Project for just under $3,000,000, to expand the capacity of the lift station. 

According to O’Reilly, the improvements will help with sewer discharge, especially during heavy rains. 

The improvements will decrease any bottleneck situation close to water to prevent overflow into Boca Ciega Bay. According to Public Works Director Tom Nicholls, the project will take close to a year to complete. Most of the construction will be conducted underground, and the city has further plans in place to keep obstruction to a minimum.

Refocus on Events: A Discussion 

The city manager discussed changing the way the city approves special events hosted within the city. 

Organizations that apply for special event permits within Gulfport city limits would have to benefit Gulfport businesses and/or Gulfport-based organizations. 

“There’s a higher bar for folks not from here,” said O’Reilly. 

“We were trying to put people on the streets to benefit the businesses, but we’ve pushed that boundary to some extent and some of these events were having a negative impact on residents,” said Henderson. “I think it’s time we reduce the frequency and the impact that this has on the residents that often just want to enjoy the City of Gulfport when it’s not doing anything more special than being Guflport.”

“Going this direction would help local organizations that may not have scheduled an event because the calendar was already full,” said Councilmember Christine Brown. 

“It’s time for the city and the residents to take back the streets,” said Vice Mayor Michael Fridovich. 

Overhead at the November 17 Gulfport City Council Meeting

“Our police department has basically become a dog catcher.” – Councilmember Paul Ray during council comments in response to complaints of aggressive and unleashed pets in Gulfport. 

“I don’t know why I say ‘healthy.’ How do healthy and Thanksgiving go together?” – Ray, after wishing the City of Gulfport a “happy and healthy Thanksgiving.” 

“Please wear your mask. It’s not politics, its science.” – Vice Mayor Michael Fridovich

“Continue to be careful. We’re likely to be dealing with this virus for a while. I think we’re suffering what they’re calling ‘pandemic fatigue.’ Don’t let yourself slip up.” – Mayor Sam Henderson 


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