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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Event Committee Faces City Audit

posted by on April 3 at 11:23 AM

Is the Special Events Committee an unaccountable body that dismisses constitutional law while catering to the city’s interests; is it merely a tangle of city departments that occasionally gets behind schedule issuing event permits; or are some snarky activists just whining when they don’t get to have their party in the park?

The Office of the City Auditor wants to find out.

An audit of the Special Event Committee’s permitting process that was requested last summer is going full-steam ahead, according to Megumi Sumitani of the auditor’s office. “We contacted the Special Event Committee last fall to let them know but didn’t get gung-ho until about a month ago. We are looking at how the process is working, and how efficient and effective the process is for the city and applicants,” she said.

The committee, which annually considers about 250 applications for events on public property, has fallen under scrutiny in recent years after event organizers filed lawsuits against the city and bemoaned the entity for failing to issue permits promptly or with reasonable conditions. Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck told the Stranger last summer that the city has received “numerous complaints” about the issuance of permits.

So the auditors will try to determine if the committee and applicants have complied with the city’s special event code – whether event applications were reviewed in a timely manner, what requirements were made, and other details of the process. Megumi says they are interviewing committee members and the organizers of about 70 randomly selected events from last year. A few other events that proved problematic for the city in 2006, which did not appear in the random sample, will also be examined as case studies.

Committee chair Virginia Swanson explains that the “Special Events Committee serves multiple constituencies and everyone isn’t always going to agree with the committee. But we don’t say ‘no’ very often.”

A written report of the findings will likely be submitted to the City Council later this year. If the report shows the committee has been operating out of bounds, the council could modify the application process or even rewrite the city’s special events law.

Political events, exempt from paying park-usage fees and other costs under the auspices of free speech, have historically faced the toughest time acquiring permits.

Notably, gay pride was restricted from expanding the scope of their festival in Volunteer Park, in 2002, and a rally to commemorate the WTO protests successfully filed an injunction to assemble in lieu of the committee’s blessing, in 2001.

Last summer, Hempfest filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to issue a permit that would accommodate traffic through construction of SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park to the event’s annual venue, Myrtle Edwards Park, despite a city code that required SAM to provide access along the waterfront. (Full disclosure: I used to be the permit applicant for Hempfest and was a consultant for the organization last year.) Even though Hempfest had submitted their application in January and attended numerous meetings to solve access issues, they still hadn’t received (or been denied) a permit when they filed the suit on July 31st -- less than a month before the 100,000-person-per-day event. Where the committee fell short, it would seem, is that it was unable to uphold city code regarding access to the park or the special event code that requires them issue a permit within 60-days of receiving an application.

The lawsuit was quickly settled after the city’s law department stepped in, but the debacle seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back – the audit was requested last August by Steinbrueck, along with Councilmembers Nick Licata and David Della.

City Auditor Susan Cohen, who gave the green light for the investigation, now wants to find out if the Hempfest problem was just the tip of the iceberg: “One of our questions about the situation with the sculpture park and Hempfest, ‘Is what happened there the perfect storm or are there a lot of problems like that with special events permitting?’”

Ultimately, the lawsuit also raises the questions whether event applicants are implicitly expected to sue the city whenever the committee dilly-dallies on their permit – and whether the committee can essentially stop processing permit applications with impunity.

Meanwhile, Hempfest is again without a permit due to restricted access through the now-completed sculpture park. This time, months after submitting their application without receiving a permit (but with time to spare before there’s smoke on the water), organizers are leapfrogging over the committee to address lawmakers directly. They will present their case and ask for assistance from the city council’s public safety committee today at 2p.m.

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For the record, I've worked with Virginia and the committee several times over the last decade. Virginia is great, helpful, efficient, and I don't know how we'd get through the tangle of the City bureaucracy without her leadership. I've watched her navigate all the different egos and neighborhood complaints and make sure events happen, happen safely, and work well with nearby businesses and residents. Hope she's not just getting harassed here.

Posted by MEINERT | April 3, 2007 11:52 AM

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