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Six years gone: Music Commission again asks Council to halt special events ordinance

Wednesday, May 9, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

The Austin Music Commission has asked City Council to put on hold nearly six years of work on updating and revamping of the city’s regulations covering special events.

At Monday’s meeting, the commission approved a resolution that calls the current draft of a new special events ordinance too vague, with too many of the rule-making decisions left up to city staff and not open to public input. Currently the special events ordinance is scheduled for its third reading and expected approval at Thursday’s City Council meeting, making the resolution something of a last-minute attempt to further rework a piece of policy that has been mired in discussion and objections from the music and event community almost from the beginning.

Monday’s unanimous vote was the third time the city’s Music Commission has asked City Council to pull and make changes to the special events ordinance since it was first proposed in May 2012. It was intended to replace portions of the city’s sound and traffic control code and create a streamlined process for planning and regulating events through the multi-department Austin Center for Events.

The latest dissension came from members of the city’s events production community, who raised concerns that the ordinance would increase costs and regulations on small community events unnecessarily.

Catlin Whitington, manager of planning for the South by Southwest festival, said small events such as block parties and cultural gatherings are likely to be burdened by what he described as a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I’m here as an event professional. I have the time to dedicate to this because this is my livelihood. Volunteer community event organizers do not have that luxury,” he said.

“Please remind your Council members they will be called to task when the regulatory burden placed on community events becomes too great to bear. … When Eeyore’s Birthday Party is required to hire 60 law enforcement officers, rather than the voluntary peacekeepers that have been working that event for years … when every run, whether it’s a 5K or a marathon, 500 people or 25,000 people, is all treated the same in regards to infrastructure and permitting needs.”

The resolution asks Council to table any further action on the special events ordinance, while calling for the creation of a community task force to identify administrative and procedural changes that can be enacted in place of the ordinance and finding “workable solutions” for issues affecting the city’s special events industry.

During the meeting it was revealed that some Council members and city staff were already at work on some potential changes to the ordinance, putting into question whether it would remain on the agenda for adoption.

Commissioner Oren Rosenthal voted in favor of the resolution but added language calling on the city to continue using existing code covering public safety and other matters related to special events.

“The types of issues you bring up where the one-size-fits-all approach will have an impact are insurance, event permitting, sound permitting, the appeal process and having an event manager to help with the process, but how would you protect the city against risk?” he said. “Let’s say there’s a whole rash of drug overdoses at Eeyore’s Birthday? If you’re saying treat Eeyore’s Birthday the same as an event that has a much more family-friendly approach, how will the city differentiate?”

The current draft of the ordinance adopts a tiered approach for planning and permitting of events based on size and resource impact, but Whitington said he and others involved in event production could still be subject to a rules process that would be decided without a chance to give input on the impact of the final code.

“You can do block parties separately without a 30-page ordinance,” he said. “My hope is to get rules created with stakeholders involved in the process. This ordinance is proposing that new regulations be made without explicitly saying what those new rules are. Our concern is that while the ordinance passes, rules will be created behind closed doors. There will be no more chance for public input as this happens.”

Photo by Jack Newton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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