We’re left with too many questions surrounding the permit process for the use of public space for the ordinance governing it to be effective.
A few Saturdays ago a local group of people who, every Saturday for years, gathered at Bridge Square to silently protest the United States’ involvement in foreign wars and police action, were asked by the representative of another organization in the square and by police to move their protest to the sidewalk across the street.
Depending on whose version of events you believe, multiple members of the group refused, or didn’t, and eventually the protest broke up.
Depending on whose interpretation you believe, the permit the city issues can be used as a tool to force others out of a public place.
At least one downtown business owner is convinced of that, having obtained a permit for the rest of the summer, despite not having an event to host, in an attempt to keep street preachers away from local businesses.
But Police Chief Monte Nelson, who is charged with enforcing the ordinances that go along with such a permit, is not convinced a permit to gather in a public park is also carte blanche to call the police on others whose actions the permit-holder may not agree with.
Clearly that interpretation raises all kinds of questions: What if a neighboring group has a lot of smokers and the permit holder resents the second-hand smoke? What if a permit holder seeks a quiet gathering place with friends, while another group is there playing Frisbee and listening to music?
And there are multiple types of permits, so which one is appropriate for what kind of event? And does one supercede another? For example, a community event permit requires at least 25 people to be gathering. That means the weekly anti-war protests wouldn’t qualify, nor would most, including the downtown business owner who applied for — and received from the city — a permit despite having no gathering at all.
This business owner did not imagine on her own that having the permit meant she could call the police to evict other gatherers in the square. Someone told her that, as is also the case for the person who called the police on the anti-war protesters.
And keep in mind, this permit process to use public spaces doesn’t only apply to Bridge Square.
The city needs to get its ducks in a row, starting with city hall and the police department agreeing on what, exactly, it means when you’ve got such a permit. City Hall should also take another look at the numbers it has attached to at least the community event permit: Is 25 a realistic number to expect for groups like the anti-war protesters or is there another permit that needs to be created for that use.
Of course, the biggest question of all should be discussed as well: What is the city attempting to do in requiring such permits and what impact — unexpected or expected — has requiring them had.
The last thing city hall should want to do is have a chilling effect on gatherings in our public spaces.