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Momma Tee Lassiter: Activist or antagonist?

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

When does a person’s civic activism go too far?

Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter is perhaps the feistiest of engaged citizens in St. Petersburg. She attends every meeting. She’s seen in the background of many city news conferences, business openings and ribbon cuttings.

She backs candidates and condemns others.

And sometimes she’s thrown out of meetings.

Elected officials in St. Pete know Momma Tee well. Other engaged citizens know her well. But for those who don’t there are a few things you should know about Momma Tee. First, she’s a Republican. She was former Mayor Bill Foster’s loudest cheerleader and doesn’t seem to care quite as much for Rick Kriseman.

She’s loud. Momma Tee yells when she’s happy — things like “praise Jesus” — and yells when she’s angry.

She refers to herself as “the community activist” seeming to imply she’s the only one. She’s not.

She’s not afraid to wag her finger at City Council, the Mayor or City staff. Sometimes, Momma Tee makes some really good points. For example, never has there been as staunch a supporter for community revitalization in poor, mostly black neighborhoods than Momma Tee.

But back to that yelling when she’s angry thing. At some point Momma Tee’s bombastic comments and rude and disruptive behavior need to be shamed.

During a City Council meeting Thursday that went from 8:30 a.m. until well after dinnertime Momma Tee spoke on just about every single item open to public comment. And every single time she stepped up to the podium she was unnecessarily mean.

People tend to take Momma Tee’s antagonistic tone with a grain of salt. Watching a live stream of Thursday’s meeting viewers could see a woman sitting in the background behind Momma Tee laughing while she spoke. At one point the woman, who probably had no idea she was on video, even covered her face.

But the, ‘she’s just a little old lady with spunk’ justification for bad behavior should not be tolerated. Momma Tee should have been thrown out of City Hall Thursday. A woman with a baby was once asked to leave because her child was cooing. COOING. That’s cute, right? But when Momma Tee storms away from the podium blurting a string of obscenities, she’s allowed to sit down and waste an additional thirty seconds or two minutes or however it plays out yelling from her seat.

The First Amendment is a grand thing. Freedom of speech is an amazing right Americans enjoy every single day. It’s sometimes abused by people like members of the Westboro Baptist Church who think it’s fun to picket funerals and call people fags. But it’s a right worth fighting for.

What gets forgotten about the First Amendment is it doesn’t mean you get to throw decorum and civic process out the window. There are rules for engaging elected officials during public meetings that have to be followed. I’m not sure if cursing at city leaders is against the rules or not, but if it isn’t, it should be.

Last night, Momma Tee told City Council member Wengay Newton to “sit the hell back” and told the entire board she was “sick of all y’all.” She used the word “damn” several times and she chastised a transgender person to the point of near tears and then muttered something about Satan.

At one point she told the board, “if it was rainin’ brains, y’all wouldn’t get wet” seeming to imply they had no brains — though the statement didn’t really make much sense.

Not once was she ever asked to leave. The worst that ever came Momma Tee’s way was City Council chair Charlie Gerdes correcting her when she said the city never does anything under budget. He told her, in a not-so-soft sort of tone, that was just not true.

Every city has its Momma Tee. Every county, too. If you ever go to a Pinellas County Commission or School Board meeting be sure to watch out for Mark Klutho who calls everyone a moron. In Tampa, there’s Ed Tillou who talks off topic and rarely makes sense. A fellow writer told me about six people in Jacksonville who each have their own amusing, if not irritating M.O.

These people all have the right to speak, of course. And elected leaders are correct to take it in stride, pretend to pay attention and maybe even care. But they are not right to ignore bad behavior.

When Momma Tee was asked to lower her voice Thursday, she blamed the city for having the volume on the microphone turned up to high. No one followed up and her voice continued to pierce City Council chambers.

I don’t know whether City Council members are afraid to piss off Momma Tee or afraid to trample the First Amendment, but I think I can speak for a lot of people who sit through City Council meetings when I say Momma Tee needs to be put in check.

Next time she decides to curse at an elected official, I say give her the boot. After all, the children she claims to so passionately support could be watching.

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Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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