This morning, just hours before the Owen County Commissioners are expected to vote on their revised Special Events ordinance, a copy of the ordinance was finally shared with the public. The document had not been available as of Friday evening, so the county attorney must have been working overtime during the weekend to have the ordinance ready for today’s 6 pm meeting. Even though harsh winter weather conditions on the roads caused Spencer-Owen Community Schools to close today, it appears that the Owen County Commissioners are intent upon bringing the public out into the streets to witness their presentation & vote on the revised ordinance.
While there has been a limited amount of time to assess the changes that have been made to the ordinance, we have reviewed the document & consulted with some outside resources.
There were multiple positive changes made to the document that were suggested by Spencer Pride, the Spencer Downtown Event Coalition, & the general public, however, there are still major issues that exist with the ordinance as it now stands.
First, let us address the improvements. Our previous concerns about the ordinance included the broad nature of the ordinance as well as the inclusion of excessive costs. For the most part, these two concerns have been addressed.
- The scope of the ordinance has now been more narrowly defined; “special events” that require a permit are now defined as those events that utilize county resources &/or property. This eliminates the broad application of the ordinance to cover garage sales, pool parties, & other events on both public & private property.
- Excessive costs outlined in the prior version have been either reduced or clarity has been provided about their applicability. This results in an overall reduction of costs to host a special event.
Unfortunately, there are still several outstanding issues, some which raise legal concerns & others that are just bad decisions in the proposal.
- The revocation of a special events permit does not include substantive due process: there is no appeals process whatsoever. The Commissioners could decide a week before our 2020 event to revoke our permit & all we could do is attend a hearing 3 days later to understand their reasoning. That’s it. Event over.
- Commissioners are able to waive fees at their discretion, with no guidance as to how they should apply this. This sets the county up for litigation if the commissioners do not exercise this right very thoughtfully. Given the behavior of the commissioners over the past several months, it does not seem reasonable they would act in a thoughtful manner.
- Event organizers are responsible to ensure that all participants at their events act in a manner that is not discriminatory or harassing. On the surface this sounds reasonable, until one considers that event organizers do not control the behaviors of all participants, specifically those of protesters. Spencer Pride, for example, had a protester at our 2019 event who yelled obscenities to our attendees, all based on his strongly-held religious beliefs. These comments were unquestionably harassing & discriminatory of the LGBTQ+ community & all of the festival attendees. Our organization, however, has limited ability to control protesters. Without infringing upon free speech, Spencer Pride is unable to eliminate such behavior. We can work to prevent it, we can try to minimize its impact the day of the event (both of which we do), but we cannot ensure that it will not take place. Based on the ordinance, if a similar circumstance arose next year, it would put us in a position to be in violation of the ordinance & therefore set the stage for our special event permit to be declined.
- While the vague & subjective “sexually suggestive” terminology has been removed, it was replaced with new references about nudity. Again, on the surface this seems reasonable, since none of Spencer’s downtown events would ever allow the public display of nudity in any fashion. The ordinance, however, is referencing all materials on display as well, including art. The Indiana code defining nudity which is referenced in the ordinance is intended to cover public displays of nudity that constitute “public indecency,” which is the act of a person. That definition was not intended to cover art & other materials. This aspect of the ordinance could be applied in ways that limit free speech & religious expression.
- From an impact perspective, the revised ordinance still eliminates access to the courthouse facilities & now additional county properties as well. This would profoundly impact some of our downtown events such as Christmas at the Square (Santa would be homeless) & any event that relies on access to the ADA-compliant public restrooms at the courthouse (such as Spencer Pride).
The Owen County Commissioners have taken a small step forward with this revision, but we respectfully request that the ordinance undergo further revision before voting on it.
Jonathan A. Balash Janet Rummel
President & Festival Director Marketing Director & SDEC Liaison
Spencer Pride, Inc. Spencer Pride, Inc.