The first floor of the county courthouse was packed last night with more than 120 attendees, most of whom were present to learn about the fate of the proposed special events ordinance that was unveiled to the public on October 21. The controversial ordinance, which has been driven by County Commissioner Board President Jeff Brothers, would have profoundly impacted the Spencer Pride Festival & Owen County events if it passed.
The main concerns expressed about the ordinance included its sweeping new authority over all Owen County events, ambiguous wording and lack of clear standards, as well as the high fees proposed. Other specific new restrictions were also addressed, including the elimination of courthouse access for all special events.
After more than an hour of public comment, the Commissioners Jeff Brothers and Steve Williamson voted to table the ordinance to make revisions based on public feedback. Commissioner Gary Burton was not in attendance.
CONFUSING “CLARIFICATION” BY COUNTY ATTORNEY
Prior to commencing with public feedback, county attorney Jim Bryan gave an overview of the ordinance. His self-described intent was to help clarify some key areas of the ordinance.
Unfortunately, as speakers later pointed out, the attorney got some of the fundamental facts about the proposed ordinance wrong. For example, Bryan stated that if the ordinance passes, the definition of a special event in Owen County would be unchanged.
Contrary to Bryan’s statement, the definition of a special event is different between the current and proposed ordinances. The difference is small on paper, but huge in application of the ordinance. It is also one of the areas most concerning about the ordinance, as the first public speaker pointed out.
Bill Williams, Jr. was first to the podium out of the list of 26 approved speakers for the ‘public comment’ portion of the ordinance discussion. Williams expressed concerns about the ordinance’s broad authority over events that were on private property.
Representatives from community organizations, some of whom organize special events or are otherwise impacted by the county’s special events, were the largest contingent of speakers speaking in opposition to the ordinance.
Ginger Kohr from the Owen County Library also expressed opposition to the proposed ordinance, in part due to its vague wording. She began her statement by first referring back to the opening comments by the County Attorney, Jim Bryan:
“The attorney’s words sound comforting,” Kohr told the audience, “but it’s the words in the ordinance that we have to live by.”
“THIS IS NOT FEELING LIKE LOVE TO ME AT ALL”
Melody Kinder-Carpenter, who spoke as a representative of the Rev 20 Christian Music Festival, shared similar concerns about how the ordinance had been worded.
“Some of the language is a little foggy so I’d suggest it be rewritten,” Kinder-Carpenter said.
She went on: “When we began the Rev 20 Festival, we believed in the tapestry & fabric of what our county stands for…”.
She spoke of several things that make Owen County special, including the Faith of many people who live here. She noted that the proposed ordinance would “drive disconnect and not join people together.”
“[This ordinance] doesn’t feel right in our house. This is not feeling like love to me at all.” Tears could be seen among several of members of the audience.
“IF YOU AREN’T LISTENING TO THE PEOPLE, YOU AREN’T DOING THE JOB”
The lack of public input in the drafting of the ordinance was a theme throughout the evening, but was made most clear when Niki Gessler addressed the commissioners.
Gessler, who has been involved in several events in nearby Gosport, spoke without accompaniment of a microphone, yet everyone heard her statement loud and clear.
“I know it’s not easy doing this job,” Gessler said. “Getting calls 24/7 from the thousands of people who pay your salary… but that’s the job. If you aren’t listening to the people, you aren’t doing the job.”
THE IMPACT ON LOCAL, SMALL BUSINESSES
Jaime Sweany (Juniper Gallery), Ben Williams (Civilian Brewing Corps), and Ann Henk (Owen Valley Flooring) were a few of the business owners who spoke out. They highlighted, in part, the positive economic benefits they see during special events.
“The whole quaint small town atmosphere is lost when you move these festivals from the square,” Henk noted.
Henk also highlighted the likely cost of litigation that will arise if the ordinance was passed: “The litigation serves no one but the attorneys. I’d rather see money go to infrastructure – like our roads – as well as education.”
Denise Sudol, owner of the Dragonfly Gallery, spoke passionately about her investment in Spencer’s downtown and her ongoing tax contribution as a business within the county. She noted that her monthly income was reduced by half when the Apple Butter Festival relocated from downtown Spencer to the Owen County Fairgrounds.
“It’s important for us to be a total community. We need the courthouse. It’s OUR courthouse,” Sudol stated unapologetically.
At the end of the 2 minute allowance for her statement, she continued.
“I know my time is up,” Sudol said, directing her comment to the Commissioners. “I think it’s about time for yours to be up as well.”
Both Sweeney and Sudol had noted that their businesses, located just a stone’s throw from the courthouse doors, had never been patronized by any of the three current county commissioners.
THE PEOPLE’S HOUSE
Mark Rogers, Executive Director of the Owen County Community Foundation, spoke about the need to encourage fairs & festivals. He spoke specifically about the proposed elimination of access to the county courthouse for all special events.
“We strongly believe that the people’s house should remain open for fairs & festivals throughout the year,” Rogers declared.
Also taking the opportunity to mention the proposed changes regarding courthouse use was Julie Coffin, who spoke to the commissioners in her capacity as President of Spencer Main Street.
Spencer Main Street coordinates the annual “Christmas at the Square” festival which includes events hosted by local downtown businesses as well as the courthouse itself. At the heart of Christmas at the Square is Santa Claus, who speaks with more than 300 kids every year, all from the courtroom on the second floor of the Owen County Courthouse.
“[Without the courthouse] the core of Christmas at the Square is gone,” Coffin spoke somberly to those present.
Unsurprisingly, Santa came up several times during the course of the meeting.
Casey Shively spoke as a citizen of Owen County about the importance of Spencer’s festivals and events. A self-described import, Shively came to Owen County 6 years ago and said she feels blessed to have been able to be a witness and participant to some of the downtown revitalization.
“Is it worth kicking Santa out of the courthouse to get drag queens off the lawn?” Shively asked the commissioners as she wrapped up her statement. Her comment alluded to the motivation by Commissioner Brothers to move forward with this ordinance in order to hinder progress of the Spencer Pride Festival.
Spencer Pride was also brought up by Barbara Thompson. Thompson is also a recent Owen County resident, having purchased a home in Gosport last year. Thompson’s first experience in Owen County was 5 year ago when she had the opportunity to attend Pride. She enjoyed the experience and reflected on it positively when she ultimately contemplated her move to Owen County.
“IT WOULD BE THE DEATH OF US”
High fees in the proposed ordinance, relative to similar communities in Indiana, was brought up several times. Although the county attorney had attempted to justify the fees in his opening statement, he told the crowd that his comparison of fees was benchmarked with the fee structure of Bloomington & South Bend. People were quick to point out the flaws in comparing our county to those of much wealthier places.
Susan Summerlot from the Vandalia Preservation Historic Association spoke about the impact that the new harsh fee would have on an annual fundraiser she helps coordinate each year.
“If we had to pay the fees, it would be the death of us,” she told the County Commissioners. The fundraiser only brings in about $400 per year and a $200 application fee plus a $500 refundable deposit would exhaust the limited financial resources of the organization.
Jennifer Abrel shared a similar story about events coordinated by the Purdue Extension Office. The Purdue Extension Office is located on county property. Unless changes are made to the proposed ordinance, Jennifer informed the Commissioners, this “would effectively end Extension programming.”
Jonathan Balash, Spencer Pride president and spokesperson of the Spencer Downtown Event Coalition, pointed out that either the proposed ordinance should be amended, or the existing ordinance should be better managed by the Commissioners. If the proposed ordinance were to be amended to reduce fees, remove ambiguous requirements, & add clear standards, it could be acceptable to the SDEC, Balash informed the Commissioners.
Balash also pointed out that the Coalition has offered on multiple occasions to work collaboratively with the Commissioners on improving the ordinance. To date, the Commissioners have ignored those offers.
Ben Williams offered his perspective on how the process of drafting and evaluating the proposed ordinance could have been improved.
“A lot of our fears, hostilities, and misinformation could be quelled by opening up the lines of communication,” Williams said to the audience before turning to the commissioners and continuing: “…Starting at the top.”
ORDINANCE TABLED (FOR NOW)
“The presence of so many citizens at tonight’s County Commissioners Meeting, and the seemingly endless list of speakers who spoke overwhelmingly on behalf of downtown events and in opposition to the proposed ordinance, is a testament to our amazing local community,” said Balash.
“They care deeply about the preservation of all special events, including our Spencer Pride Festival.”
Before voting to table the ordinance for the evening, President Brothers complained to the audience about the way he had been portrayed in many of the sentiments expressed. Few attendees seemed to sympathize with him.
When the vote was finished, the crowd cheered. While many had hoped for this outcome, there were likely few bets that it would end this way. Given Commissioner Brothers’ recent statements, it was widely assumed that the ordinance would pass.
Whether the tabling of the vote is` a genuine effort by the Commissioners to start listening to the public, or whether this is a tactic to stall a vote until public outcry subsides is unclear.
For now, this was a huge milestone for the community. Citizens are encouraged to remain vigilant on this topic, nonetheless.