Owen County Commissioners Pass Controversial Ordinance During Winter Storm “Watch”

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As the wet snow of a winter storm fell to the ground, concerned citizens gathered in the first floor of the Owen County Courthouse last night to attend the county commissioners meeting.  They observed perhaps the coldest site in the county – the icy hearts of the Owen County Commissioners as they passed unceremoniously the contentious special events ordinance.  The ordinance is expected to significantly impact special events that call downtown Spencer home.

The crowd at the courthouse was relatively light compared to recent meetings, with just under 50 people in attendance.  The challenge was not getting people excited to attend, but rather, overcoming the harsh road conditions present throughout the county.  Owen County was officially under an “Orange” Watch status, which means that “conditions are threatening to the safety of the public” (information taken from www.in.gov/dhs/traveladvisory/).  During a Watch status “only essential travel, such as to and from work or in emergency situations, is recommended.”

Travel restrictions in place, it seemed to be the perfect conditions for the Owen County Commissioners to pass the controversial ordinance.  At every opportunity over the past 3 months, Commissioners Brothers, Burton, & Williamson have seemingly taken whichever path would result in the least public engagement.  Shifting agenda topics, adjusting meeting locations & times, failing to address sound equipment issues, & a variety of other methods were undertaken either intentionally or ignorantly (or both) to reduce public participation on this topic.  Unfortunately, this has also included outright lying to their constituents as well.  Perhaps these efforts were made because the vast majority of the public feedback on this matter has been in opposition of the ordinance & the commissioners’ attempts to stifle Spencer’s downtown events.

Owen County Commissioners Williamson, Brothers, & Burton at the December 16th meeting.

County Commissioners apparently feel strong enough about the ordinance to push it forward amidst great public backlash.  Oddly enough, they have provided only weak justification for their work when questioned by their constituents or the media.  Defending their position on the special events ordinance has proved challenging, given their inability thus far to honestly explain the reasons for pursuing the ordinance to begin with.

To be fair, the special events ordinance had been improved from its earlier iteration, but it still needed much more work before it could become an ordinance that would truly add value to the county.  Instead, the commissioners moved to quickly pass the ordinance 3-0 after the county attorney spent more than twenty minutes reading the ordinance aloud to the public.  There was no discussion among the commissioners or by members of the audience prior to the vote.

The revised ordinance wording was new to most people in the audience, possibly including one or more of the commissioners themselves; it had only been shared with the public 9 hours prior to its passing.  According to County Commissioners President Jeff Brothers the ordinance had been ready on Friday for his review, although why it had not been shared with the public at that time– & why this conflicted with other reports that the attorney was still working on it through the weekend – was unclear.

Changes that had been made to the ordinance were positive, specifically in reducing fees & clarifying the application process.  Many of the changes recommended by Spencer Pride & the Spencer Downtown Event Coalition were made.

Unfortunately, the changes made to the ordinance were less than half of those recommended.  The vague “sexually suggestive” wording had been removed & recommendations by a conservative citizen to add a “no vanity parades” provision were ignored, however, new wording about nudity was added & issues related to a lack of substantive due process were completed overlooked.  In addition, vague guidance about the application of waivers remained.  This part of the ordinance is ripe for litigation if county commissioners are not thoughtful in their administration of the new ordinance.

Passage of the ordinance marks sweeping changes in the accessibility, restrictions, & cost associated with the usage of county property during special events.  Upset members of the audience vocally expressed their frustrations at the moment that the ordinance went up for the vote.  Commissioner Brothers chose to raise his voice over the members of the audience in order to drown them out; this after he expressed frustration aloud that he ‘forgot his gavel.’  (At a recent meeting of the Commissioners in the middle of November, Brothers had ineffectively garnered his gavel to shut down debate on another topic.)  Argument between the Commissioners & citizens did ensue, however, it generally avoided the drama of the prior meeting in that accusations of criminal conduct were fairly minimal in the newest exchange.

Supporters of Spencer’s downtown events wore buttons during Monday evening’s meeting.

The entire debate over the special events ordinance made several things clear:

  1. The Owen County Community is highly supportive of all of its downtown events, including the Spencer Pride Festival.
  2. Spencer’s downtown events are highly impactful to downtown businesses as well as local employers. The success of these events is vital to these organizations.
  3. Citizens care tremendously about the success of our county & about maintaining its reputation as a welcoming place to live, work, & play.
  4. Owen County Commissioners do not respect each other, other county officials, or the constituents that they represent.

Where Spencer Pride goes next is clear & has been since this debate began.  We are in the midst of a major shake-up for our 2020 festival which has already yielded high levels of interest from new sponsors, vendors, & potential attendees.  Although the commissioners may have passed this ordinance in an attempt to diminish the success of the Spencer Pride Festival, the ultimate outcome of this effort will have been the opposite:  we are currently on track to have the biggest, boldest, & best Pride Festival in our history.

We will continue to keep the public informed about the impact of the special events ordinance & our detailed plans for the 2020 Spencer Pride Festival.  In the meantime, individuals who want to show their support to Spencer Pride can do so in a variety of ways.  We accept donations of cash as well as volunteer time.  We offer a variety of festival sponsorships for organizations.  For more information on how to get involved & to show support for our respected annual festival, please reach out to festival director Jonathan Balash at Jonathan@SpencerPride.org or (812) 821-3073.