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Heavily amended events ordinance passes, ending six-year struggle to manage large gatherings

Friday, May 11, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

A heavily amended version of the city’s long-proposed special events ordinance was given its third reading and final approval Thursday, setting the stage for the next steps in creating a new framework for planning and regulating large gatherings throughout the city.

The 9-0 vote – with Council Member Ellen Troxclair absent and Council Member Ora Houston away from the dais – brings to an end a six-year process to manage events, especially those that require road closures, have elevated noise levels or have the potential to significantly impact the areas surrounding them. Since the issue was first raised in spring 2012, the city’s Music Commission voted three times – including at its meeting this week – to ask City Council to halt progress on the ordinance because of concerns that public input was lacking in crafting the policies that override several pieces existing city code.

The most recent objections came from those working in the special events industry, who said the draft presented to Council left the rule-making of the ordinance entirely to city staff members, with the potential that no oversight or input into their decisions could take place before those rules are presented to Council for further approval later this year.

To address those concerns, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo offered five amendments that were added during discussion Thursday. Those amendments were included to:

  • Create a process for Council to review staff decisions regarding event planning, at the request of organizers or other stakeholders
  • Begin the rule-making process 10 days after the ordinance’s adoption, with adoption no sooner than April 1, 2019
  • Have the city manager create a stakeholder review process, including related boards and commissions, to oversee the making of the rules in the ordinance
  • Create a scalable fee schedule based on the ordinance’s tier structure and an event’s scope
  • Create a task force to convene April 1, 2019, to review the efficacy of the ordinance and its rules

Council Member Greg Casar also added an amendment easing planning and permitting requirements on organizers of “spontaneous” events such as political protests.

During public comment, organizers of some of Austin’s most well-known events offered their concerns about the tiered approach to event permitting – referring to it often as “one-size-fits-all” – and how the increasing cost of law enforcement and other requirements have started to cause some organizers to pull the plug on their gatherings.

“The ordinance has the potential to create some ill-conceived consequences,” said Barbara Morgan, executive director of the Austin Film Festival. “The tiered events system is wholly confusing, but more problematic is what’s not in the ordinance. It appears written to omit certain events while taking a one-size-fits-all approach towards the rest of us. I hope you will step back and take a look at this ordinance and realize special events are an industry in Austin that has been one of the catalysts for our growth.”

Organizers of so-called “legacy events,” such as Eeyore’s Birthday Party, which are intended to have an easier review process under the new system unless their plans change significantly, said it is unlikely they would be able to start and grow a similar event in 2018 because of what they described as redundant and confusing traffic and security requirements.

Brad Spies, director of special projects for South by Southwest, said there are still issues such as music venues having their head count cut with no warning during the festival. And as a former chair of the Music Commission, he shared that his thoughts on much of what made it to Council on Thursday haven’t changed in the past six years.

“The problem with this whole process has been an inability by staff and city legal to listen to stakeholders,” he said. “The process could’ve been a lot faster and with a better end product if the stakeholders had been listened to from the beginning. Many of the points recently included were brought up to staff five years ago. There is a huge need for improvement in the permitting process and this ordinance is just the first step.”

Photo by Robert Simmons (originally posted to Flickr as DSC00849) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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