Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: My front row seat to a fight that fizzled

HOMELESS ADVOCATE: A police citation handed to Arnold Abbott, 90, for violating a new law banning feeding the homeless in Stranahan Park in Fort Lauderdale aroused controversy.
HOMELESS ADVOCATE: A police citation handed to Arnold Abbott, 90, for violating a new law banning feeding the homeless in Stranahan Park in Fort Lauderdale aroused controversy. MCT

Alas ... it would have made for grand theater.

Some of South Florida's more notable lawyers gathered in an undersized courtroom, including Bill Scherer, whose reputation fairly drips with political influence. Back in 2000, he represented George W. Bush's interest in Florida's notorious presidential recount. Lately, he has been busy clawing back loot stolen by Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.

On Monday morning, Scherer was standing next to Bruce Rogow, whose renown expertise in constitutional law has taken him into the slightly more august environs of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not that the utilitarian shabbiness of the Broward courtroom said anything about the judge refereeing the legal tussle over the city of Fort Lauderdale's attempt to regulate venues where charitable operations feed the homeless. Wry, witty Broward Circuit Judge Thomas M. Lynch, with his long hair and goatee fashioned in the manner of Buffalo Bill, only added to the theatrical aura. Reporters were relishing the chance to describe Lynch as a former professional surfer.

The city's hired gun, Michael Burke, one of South Florida's big names in government law, seemed ready. As the hearing opened, Burke and Scherer exchanged good-natured quips, spoken with pugilistic undertones. And Scherer had his PowerPoint ready. One slide, headlined, “Fort Lauderdale's Shenanigans,” captured the mood nicely.

For a nerd like me, this had the makings of high entertainment, a front row seat watching able lawyers grapple over profound constitutional issues.

The city was taking on 90-year-old Arnold Abbott, who has refused to comply with a new city ordinance regulating the venues that charitable groups use for dishing out meals to the homeless. Abbott’s lawyers claim that the city's attempt to move him away from parks and the beach amounts to a violation of his religious rights. (Scherer and Rogow were there as would-be intervenors, representing two other ministers involved in outdoor feedings.)

Earlier this month, lawyers for Abbott, who has been cited three times for flouting the new regulations, managed to win a 30-day injunction enjoining the city from enforcing the new rules. Judge Lynch had hoped lawyers for the warring parties could thrash out a compromise. Ostensibly, the city had come to court Monday to demand the judge lift his injunction while the city appeals the ruling.

But Burke also had a conciliatory offer. The city, he said, would agree not to enforce the new ordinance for 45 days. In the meantime, the city's legal team would sit down with Abbott and talk settlement. Retired Judge Jay Spechler would act as a mediator.

So much for high drama. The city, which has been pummeled in the national media lately, was spared the Grinch designation three days before Christmas. And surely, in an atmosphere away from the TV cameras, homeless advocates can be persuaded to conduct mass feedings in venues more amenable to the city's residents and merchants. This ought not be such a complicated issue.

“Something good came out of this today,” Judge Lynch said.

Something good. Something sensible. Just not that much fun.

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