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City gets closer to streamlined process for special event permits

Thursday, September 26, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

After years of discussion, the City of Austin appears to be getting closer to streamlining its process for issuing special events permits.


It’s a move at least one local event planner says is necessary to address what can currently be an antagonistic process.


On Tuesday night, the seven-member Parks and Recreation Board voted unanimously to support a push by the Transportation Department and the Austin Center for Events, or ACE, to seek Council approval of amending rules related to special events and high-capacity venues. ACE is made up of representatives from various city departments who manage policy processing for local events.


“Two years ago, Council passed a resolution (stating) we look at all the special events in the city and make some recommendations,” said Gordon Derr, assistant director of Transportation Planning. At that time, ACE was established. It operates out of an office on the 10th floor of One Texas Center. Special events teams from Transportation, Fire, Police, EMS, Code Compliance and the city’s Music Office work together out of that location to expedite permit processing.


The proposed new section of code “sets out what the authority is of ACE – the authority in the public right-of-way and private property,” said Derr. “It would deal with issues related to noise and temporary events. It would adopt administrative rules that outline how special events occur.”


Special events permit processing falls under the overall authority of the Transportation Department, an issue Michelle Graham, owner of the event planning firm Bounce, says is problematic. Bounce produces the Keep Austin Weird Festival and 5K and various other local fun runs and events in places including Texas, Chicago and New York.


“It’s not just a transportation issue, it’s a people issue,” she said. “The cultural stance within the department of special events is not matched up with where policy is going, so it has been a little antagonistic when it comes to process,” Graham continued. “With any kind of government process, there’s a part where policy ends and people take over. People have to interpret and employ the policy, and that’s where the breakdown exists.”


That breakdown is what ACE is attempting to eradicate. Right now, event organizers have to fill out applications for each department. ACE wants to develop one single, comprehensive application.


“The primary purpose of the ordinance is to bring it all together to create a more streamlined process,” Derr said. “To create a clearinghouse to help event organizers but also to help set up the permit rules and regulations.”


If passed, ACE would have the authority to review, approve or deny special event applications. The change to city code would eliminate duplication.


“Right now, the process is varied and it’s ever-changing.” Graham said. “We may start with transportation, but they still require us to go get sign-offs from all departments.


“Take the City of Arlington by contrast. We submit our permit to one person and it’s that person’s job as a city employee to check with all the departments. If there’s a problem, they connect us directly to them to handle that specific issue. If there are issues with more than one department, they coordinate the communication and work with us to iron those things out.”


Graham says here in Austin, if a problem is resolved with the Austin Police Department, another issue could pop up with another department, “and we keep going back and forth, back and forth.”


The proposal identifies a special event as one that would draw 100 people or more to a city-owned or city-controlled facility. It would not apply to the Convention Center, the Long Center, the Palmer Events Center or City Hall because those facilities already have contract requirements very similar to what’s written in the proposed ordinance.


The city also defines a special event as one that interferes with a city street, walkway or right-of-way for non-parking use, like a run or a marathon.


In addition to consolidating the entire process, ACE is proposing it be able to categorize each special event, and process permit requests based on a tier system.


“Right now, the requirements for a block party are the same as for SXSW,” Derr said. The lower-tiered event applications for small events would be due at least three days in advance while higher-tiered events—like the ACL Fest or SXSW – would need to be received at least six months ahead of time.


And, the department is working on developing an online system for processing permits, as well as an electronic notification system alerting the public to upcoming events. Staff also intends to create an online guidebook for prospective event planners explaining the tier system, what must be submitted to the city, a fee schedule and a list of resources.


While there is frustration, Graham applauds Derr, the work the city is doing, and she says this is progress in the right direction.


Derr says his department is tentatively set to present Council with the new ordinance on Oct. 17.

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