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Council scrutinizes details of proposed Special Events Ordinance

Thursday, October 24, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members will have the opportunity to take action tonight on what Council Member Laura Morrison on Tuesday called the “much discussed, monster ordinance on special events.”


At the work session, Council discussion focused on a host of issues surrounding the Special Events Ordinance, including the process – or lack thereof – for an appeal of a granted permit, who and under what conditions would have to apply through the special events permit process, and the potential of some form of multi-year permit.


It has been something of a long and bumpy road. Assistant City Transportation Director Gordon Derr told Council members that staff needed to “take a holistic” look at the special events process – one that would produce something more than just amendments to the city’s existing events in the public right-of-way rules.


Along the way, there have been questions about the waiver of fees associated with festivals, the total economic benefit to the city, as well as concerns from some neighborhoods and businesses about the interruption of regular street access. On the other side, promoters can point to the vast economic impact of large-scale events for both locals and city coffers. Indeed, the hosting of special events has become a major piece of Austin’s economic engine, and a major question for its infrastructure.


The city consolidated a host of transportation, music, and public safety officials into one group last year. The ordinance changes would, theoretically, further streamline the process.


If approved, it would create four tiers of potential events.  The first would cover very small-scale events such as block parties, unless those events feature alcohol. Tier One events would come with a three-to-five day turnaround time.


Council Member Chris Riley picked up on the obvious issue. “I noticed that Tier One expressly does not include any consumption of alcohol – so as soon as you get to any consumption, that automatically bumps you into Tier Two,” he noted. “Did we give any thought to whether the trigger should be sale of alcohol versus consumption, for instance if you had a birthday party on a neighborhood street…where someone just sets out an ice chest with beers along with soft drinks.”


Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link told Riley that this was the case. “My understanding from the Fire Department is that once the consumption of alcohol is known, it triggers different fire requirements, which increases fire’s inspection powers,” she said.


The tiers graduate according to size and complexity. Tier Two is set for events with an expected crowd of 2,500 or more – a level that would trigger a mass gathering permit. It comes with a minimum 30-day review period.


Derr was more vague in his description of the next two event levels. He told Council members that Tier Three would be for something on the order of the annual Pecan Street festival and that Tier Four would be reserved for major national-draw sized events.


Morrison and Council Member Kathie Tovo each expressed some level of concern about whether the new process would over-insulate event promoters from community interaction. Tovo harkened back to her involvement with the Street Closure Task Force, and changes that that body helped bring along.


“In my opinion, a lot of the reason that our events run smoothly is that our process now puts the promoters in touch with, and requires them to work with the communities that are going to be impacted by those events,” she said.


Though she left room for different standards for smaller events, Morrison also honed in on the apparent lack of an appeals process under current regulations. Derr told Council members that, should the Urban Transportation Commission and the Music Commission, as well as Council, all get a chance to weigh in, that the resulting process could add weeks to a permit application.


“We’re adding six weeks to two months to any process, just to get on the schedules for the appropriate boards and commissions, and to get on the Council agenda,” Derr said. “So all the sudden, a Tier One is not three days, it’s, you know, 63 days.”


Council Member Mike Martinez told staff and his colleagues that he wants to be sure that both sides get a chance to appeal a staff ruling, should that option be attached to the ordinance.


For his part, Council Member Bill Spelman called for at least Council review of rules that will accompany the ordinance, but won’t be written until after its passage.


Morrison raised the question of whether some events might be allowed to collect a special events permit that stretches over a period of years. “As I tried to understand what the driver of that request was…there were a few different interests (the promoters) had,” Morrison said. “One is that there was this concept of district boundaries, and they were interested in solidifying district boundaries for multiple years. They were interested in changes in fees… they were looking at hours, and they thought it might help enforcement.”


She then called for comments on the issue. Link told Council members that, “there is nothing in the current ordinance that would prohibit the Council from entering into an agreement with an event organizer.”


However, Link balked at the notion of memorializing the concept in the ordinance. “Including it in the ordinance itself – the way it’s drafted right now, which doesn’t prohibit the Council from doing this, is the most (legally) defensible position,” she continued. “The agreements would be effectively treating event organizers differently, so there would need to be some thought about what is in the agreement.”

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