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Special Events Ordinance could see final approval in October

Thursday, September 7, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Staff at the Austin Center for Events will continue working on the city’s long-delayed Special Events Ordinance, despite a push from some City Council members to make the policy official by the end of the month.

Council ended up approving the second reading of the 31-page ordinance by a 9-0 vote, with Council members Delia Garza and Pio Renteria absent for the vote. That decision came roughly three years after the first reading of the ordinance was approved by a Council made up of almost entirely different members.

It is expected that the ordinance will come back to Council in mid-October for final approval, with staff directed to use the time in between to begin drawing up the rules that would be used by ACE to enforce the new policy, which is intended to make the application process for special events easier to navigate.

The to-be-determined rules cover procedures and requirements for notifying neighbors of events, insurance coverage minimums and how events will be approved. These rules were a point of contention during public comment at last Thursday’s meeting. Similar concern over how the ordinance would be carried out by staff was one of the reasons why the Special Events Ordinance was pulled prior to its second reading in 2014, with Council opting for and then abandoning a committee to fine tune the policy.

Getting the policy in place and working properly is a priority for those in Austin’s lucrative special and corporate events industries, which see huge bumps in business during South by Southwest, Austin City Limits Festival and the United States Grand Prix.

“The last time there was stakeholder input on this item was three years ago, and a lot of things have changed in that time,” said Brad Spies, brand development manager for South by Southwest. “Neighborhoods have grown frustrated with the bureaucracy that comes with even hosting a simple block party. The music census has shown that the Austin music and creative community, which are in critical shape, rely disproportionately on events for work to pay the bills, and in the absence of this ordinance, ACE itself has evolved its policies and procedures.”

The ordinance loosens the definition of what constitutes a special event, raising the threshold to 100 attendees in a move designed to make it easier for neighborhood gatherings and block parties to take place without navigating the approval process.

The biggest change would be the implementation of a tier system that classifies events into one of four tiers based on their crowd size, duration, physical footprint and use of city resources. Lower-tier events will have shorter application lead times and approval windows, except during the spring festival season around South by Southwest when applications will need to be submitted at least 30 days ahead of an event.

Cindy Lo, owner of the Red Velvet Events agency, said companies like hers need the city to have a clearly defined set of rules that won’t result in large, expensive events potentially getting canceled by the city over procedural matters days prior to taking place. Lo also criticized Council and staff for waiting three years to bring the ordinance back for approval without asking local events stakeholders how it might need to be updated.

“I’m curious why it’s taken so long, since I reviewed it three years ago,” she said. “So many companies open offices here because their executives have such a great time experiencing events in Austin. Let’s make sure Austin continues to be a welcoming destination for these corporate events, and please consider meeting with us event professionals to consider fine tuning details so we can get back on track with the process of welcoming corporate groups.”

Some Council members and Mayor Steve Adler asked if it would be possible for ACE staff to draw up the complete rules for the ordinance prior to its third reading approval, but legal staff said ordinance rules have to be drafted 30 days after passage, with another 30 days for stakeholder review before department heads officially adopt them.

A possible delay to review proposed rules was met with resistance by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Renteria, who pushed for the ordinance to return to the agenda on Sept. 28. Tovo suggested ACE staff gather fresh input from stakeholders for revisions before the end of the month, but Council Member Ora Houston dismissed that as an unrealistic time frame.

“This was on the agenda for approval three years ago, and stakeholders didn’t agree to some parts of it then, and there are points of disagreement that won’t be solved with more time,” she said. “It took a whole long time to get back, and I want to pass it on the 28th. It’s been on our agenda several times already.”

Photo by Earl McGehee from Austin, TX, USA (Acro Flash Mob in Downtown Austin) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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