Three-Minute Warriors

Ever feel like raising hell with your elected officials? These intrepid citizens have been doing it for years.

With his three minutes ticking down to zero, Tony Daniel's speech has become a cauldron of vitriol, his voice a bellow. He has ripped Tampa City Council for earlier honoring its police officer of the month ("[Cops] don't do nothin' for black people but harass us 24/7") and excoriated the council's two African-American members, Gwen Miller and Kevin White, for being pawns ("black people have absolutely, positively no representation in this city whatsoever"). He's in mid-sentence when the cut-off comes: "Thank you, next." Daniel bolts out the door.

Whether he was enraged or just being theatrical, Daniel was taking advantage of a right we all have - to speak directly to our elected officials during an open forum segment that's part of local government meetings. Sometimes it's scheduled early in the meeting, sometimes at the end (a few governments have one at the beginning and one at the end); some are televised, some are not; some restrict topics, others are wide open. Access is easy: Citizens sign up, or line up, and speak. And they're usually limited to a speaking time of three minutes a person.

The forums tend to draw different types:

• Individuals upset about something very specific (e.g. a dangerous intersection that needs a traffic light).

• Groups gathering to protest government policies (e.g. the Hillsborough County Commission's recent assault on gay pride).

• Regulars, often called gadflies, who religiously use their time to speak in front of elected officials, and in some cases have been doing so for decades.

The gadflies are a diverse lot. Some of them riff on topics that run far afield of local government business; some make speeches that can leave you befuddled. But others do their homework and submit valuable ideas, or point out malfeasance. They catalyze change.

And they're not wild about the term "gadfly," which is defined by as "a persistent irritating critic." Veteran Hillsborough County activist Marilyn Smith scoffs at the word. "We're really just concerned citizens who act on what we feel is important," she says.

The speeches they make are not, by and large, Mario Cuomo-esque - which is to say that their brief orations are seldom polished and on point. Certainly, some of the regulars are eccentric, even kooky. But there's reason to believe that, if suddenly they all stopped showing up, commissioners and council people might feel freer to play fast and loose with the public trust.

So who are these three-minute warriors? What axes do they grind, what agendas do they push, what successes have they enjoyed? What makes them tick? Meet a few of the most dedicated among their ranks.

-Eric Snider

Policy Wonk: Emily Rogers Coeyman Age: 84Main issue: TransportationStomping grounds: St. Petersburg City Council, Metropolitan Planning Organization, Pinellas County Commission, Pinellas Sports Authority"When it comes down to it," says Emily Rogers Coeyman, "I guess I'm willing to spend time at City Hall."

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the greatest understatement of all time.

Emily - everyone knows her only as Emily - has been keeping tabs on St. Pete City Council, Pinellas County Commission and any other government body that would let her in the door for the last 45 years. She is a staple, a constant, the absolute dean of local watchdogs. She's even got her own seat down at City Hall.

But Emily missed the last City Council meeting; the gentle gray-haired woman has been holed up in Edward White Hospital with circulation problems in her foot. Luckily, her mouth is working just fine.

Emily is a policy wonk; she speaks in codes like a councilwoman and evades questions as deftly as Scott McClellan. As I sit by her hospital bed, trying to get her to reminisce on her four decades in public life, she stays distinctly on message.

Public transportation, of course, is still messed up. Her bus home from downtown doesn't run after 8 p.m., so she can't make it to the night meetings. She's worried about the condos going up on the waterfront - "We don't want to look like Tampa" - and about a proposed development across from Bay Pines - "That's a lousy thing and I don't mind saying it."

There was a time, however, that Emily did stay quiet. It took her a year to get up the nerve to speak at a meeting. But as the years went by and her confidence grew, Emily began to make her voice heard more and more. Now, she usually runs over her allotted three minutes.

"I can't close my mouth until I finish my thought," she says. "They don't like that, but I think a person should be able to finish a sentence."

Even on her pet issues, Emily doesn't stick to a specific political or philosophical ideology. She was for the baseball stadium in the '80s, but is against the newest forms of downtown revitalization. She goes issue by issue, agenda by agenda. And she's always got an opinion.

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