Gay Sarasota School Board member verbally attacked after public comment rules change

Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | March 9, 2023

At Tuesday’s Sarasota County School Board meeting, where the board agreed to expand the public’s comment time, one frequent speaker spent her three minutes launching personal, anti-gay attacks on board member Tom Edwards.

Melissa Bakondy, a regular school board meeting attendee and former member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove Edwards, who is gay, from the board, calling him an “LGBT groomer” and “a threat to the innocence of our children.” She also implied he was a threat to the safety of children, citing his sexual orientation, at one point asking why he wanted to read books to elementary students, something commonly done by school district officials, and why he posted the pictures on social media.

The incident again highlighted a simmering debate over the tension between allowing wide-ranging public input and the rancor that often accompanies it at Sarasota School Board meetings over the past few years.

During the speech, Bakondy called on the district to send an email to the parents of all the students Edwards read to.

“These notification letters should include that young children may have been inappropriately photographed and placed on the internet and should include Mr. Edwards’ background of alcohol sales and participating in LGBTQ grooming events…,” said Bakondy, who also called Edwards a “groomer” at a meeting last September, and was removed from a meeting in April 2022 for refusing to step away from the lectern after speaking out of turn.

The term “groomer” has been weaponized to label all gay or transgender people as pedophiles, “which is completely, patently false,” said R.G. Cravens, assistant professor of political science at California Polytechnic State University, in an interview with USA Today.

One member of the audience shouted “you are a homophobic bigot” as Bakondy stepped away from the lectern, and Board Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler apologized to Edwards following the end of public comment.

“That was wildly uncomfortable and inappropriate, and I apologize to Mr. Edwards,” Ziegler said. “Just as much as I do not believe anyone’s sexual orientation should be discussed in a classroom or in an office, I do not believe it’s relevant or should be discussed at this dais or in these chambers.”

Edwards is the only Democrat remaining on the board after last year’s election, in which two conservative Republicans joined Zeigler to create a majority that reversed what had been a more moderate to left-leaning majority.

Sarasota County School Board Vice-Chair Tom Edwards addresses attendees at a meeting on May 3, 2022, where he adjourned early because of people speaking out of turn.
Sarasota County School Board Vice-Chair Tom Edwards addresses attendees at a meeting on May 3, 2023, where he adjourned early because of people speaking out of turn. Sarasota County Schools YouTube

Edwards then responded, saying he’s used to being verbally attacked and that it comes with the territory of being an elected official. But he said Ziegler should, in the future, shut down hateful comments at meetings.

The board’s consent agenda included passing an expansion to public comment time from two minutes to three minutes, and the consolidation of public comment into one designated time before board business.

Board members Ziegler, Tim Enos and Robyn Marinelli had campaigned last year on expanding public comment at board meetings and attributed much of the political divisiveness and negative rhetoric to the previous board’s stricter rules on public comment time.

Enos, Marinelli and board member Karen Rose did not immediately respond for comment about the eruption at Tuesday’s meeting.

Sarasota School Board responses to anti-gay public comment. SaraThe women called Tom Edwards an “LGBT groomer” and said he was “a threat to the innocence of our children.” Board chair Bridget Ziegler apologized. Steven Walker, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Edwards pointed to the governor’s “name calling” and targeting of school board members, himself included, as an underlying reason for the attacks. DeSantis included Edwards in a list of Florida school board members he said he would campaign to defeat in 2024.

“We don’t accept that from our students. Why are we accepting that from our elected officials, and why are we accepting it in the School Board room?” he said after Bakondy’s comments.

Bakondy’s comments included pointing to Edwards proclaiming himself as “woke” at a local forum in August, where he said he was working from the best strategic position on the inside. DeSantis and other conservatives have used “woke” as a catch-all term to label progressive activists.

Christian Ziegler, Bridget’s husband and chairman of the Florida GOP, in an interview with SRQ Magazine called Edwards “perhaps the most ‘woke’ school board member in America.” Despite the label, Edwards has doubled down on the label.

“If woke means developing programs that enhance the educational outcomes of our students and benefit my community, if woke means fostering critical thinking, if woke means creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students, then I wear it as a badge of honor,” Edwards said in a statement to Mother Jones this week.

In an interview with the Herald Tribune, Edwards contended that the governor is signaling to his supporters that such rhetoric was acceptable and that Ziegler was following suit. He called the comments “emotionally violent,” and said they hushed the room.

If the roles were reversed and Ziegler was being called names or accused of misconduct, Edwards said he would have asked the person to stop and start over. Edwards has previously adjourned a meeting because of people speaking out of turn when he was chairman last year.

Bridget Ziegler (pictured center) celebrates her August election victory at Gecko's Grill & Pub in south Sarasota. Melissa Bakondy, the public commenter who directed homophobic remarks to board member Tom Edwards, is pictured to the left.
Bridget Ziegler (pictured center) celebrates her August election victory at Gecko’s Grill & Pub in south Sarasota. Melissa Bakondy, the public commenter who directed homophobic remarks to board member Tom Edwards, is pictured to the left. THOMAS BENDER/HERALD-TRIBUNE

In the past, former Board Chairwoman Jane Goodwin repeatedly stopped personal attacks from public commenters against board members. In an interview, Ziegler said there’s a line between keeping board decorum and infringing on someone’s right to petition their government.

She said the line is clearly drawn at profanity and threats, but said personal attacks in public comment happen to elected officials on all sides. Interrupting a speaker would only escalate the situation as has happened in the past, she said.

“I do take it seriously, and I will continue to model what I believe is appropriate decorum,” she said.

Robyn Marinelli gives a speech during the Republican election day party at Robarts Arena.
Robyn Marinelli gives a speech during the Republican Election Day party at Robarts Arena. THOMAS BENDER/HERALD-TRIBUNE

Marinelli, following the vote to suspend the Character Strong character education program Tuesday, said she’s also been receiving threats, but did not respond to a request for comment to elaborate.

“I have been getting emails to say I should be euthanized, that my family should be euthanized. I get followed, and it’s awful,” Marinelli said at the meeting. “If we’re going to work for all kids in this community, it needs to stop.”

Edwards said he feels bad that any board member should have to feel threatened or unsafe, and that these feelings stem from rhetoric fostered in the board chambers.

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