'Mass Gathering' Ordinance Tabled in Bath
Last night a packed city hall chambers here in Bath, Maine watched in excitement as the council voted 6-2 to indefinitely postpone a vote on a new 'mass gathering' ordinance. Several of us from the local peace movement spoke and requested that the 12-page ordinance be tabled.
A local weekly newspaper called The Forecaster reported this morning on their web site:
Bruce Gagnon of Centre Street, who has served as coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, was the first of the residents to state their opposition to the rule.
“To me, this ordinance was confusing,” he said. “The fact that it took longer to read than the United States Constitution indicates how confusing it is. I think it’s overbearing, and potentially unconstitutional in various parts.”
Gagnon noted vigils he and others sometimes hold outside BIW, could fall under the ordinance.
“If we had more than 50 people for six hours, we’d have to pay a $100 administrative filing fee, get $1 million liability insurance, and pay for any police coverage that the city deemed necessary,” he said. “That would essentially be putting a price tag on free speech.”
He asked that the matter be tabled in order to gather more public input.
Mary Beth Sullivan of Centre Street noted that the gatherings in which she and Gagnon participate are not always spontaneous [they amended the ordinance to allow for 'spontaneous' protests], and that the group could opt to stay longer than originally planned.
“I’m hearing you all say, this has nothing to do with what you intended, but (my) concern is for the unintended consequences,” she said.
Councilor Bernie Wyman noted that the council has sought public input on the ordinance.
“We’ve gotten their input,” he said to his fellow councilors. “I haven’t heard anybody out there get up and speak in favor of the ordinance.”
“We’ve been without (such an ordinance) for a very long time,” Councilor Steve Brackett said, speaking in favor of slowing down the process, and holding another workshop to hear more feedback.
He added, “I do understand the need for an ordinance like this … to protect the city and taxpayers. But given what has gone on tonight, and communication I’ve had, and interesting points raised, I wouldn’t vote in favor of this tonight.”
Several other Bath residents also made strong comments about the ordinance - everyone who spoke asked the council to table it and hold more public meetings to give local citizens the chance to express their concerns. We only learned about the proposed ordinance after the first public hearing was held and an article appeared in the local daily paper. Several of the city councilors acknowledged they received more public comments since that first hearing than they usually get on most city affairs.
One of the better testimonies of the evening came from Peter Woodruff who recently retired after 33-years as a BIW shipyard worker. Peter has a severe medical condition caused by years of inhaling manganese dust when steel is cut. He is loosing his ability to speak normally and he bravely stood up and told his personal story about his speech problem but also how the ordinance would impact the union's picket line during strikes at the shipyard. Peter said he was involved in two strikes and that the union kept picket lines going throughout the night since the shipyard works round-the-clock. Peter is also an active participant in the local peace movement.
The proposed ordinance calls for any protest over 50 people that lasts more than six hours to have to pay a $100 administrative filing fee, get $1 million liability insurance, and pay for any police coverage that the city deemed necessary. In addition the ordinance says that protests would not be allowed after 11:00 pm.
During my testimony I also said:
In order to get more information about potential costs, I called our local insurance agency and asked for the price of a $1 million dollar liability policy for a BIW protest. The agency called four companies that provide those policies and none of them would insure such an event. So even if we were willing to buy the insurance (which we are not) we couldn’t get it anyway. And by your ordinance as it now reads we’d be denied the right to protest if we didn’t get such a policy.
One thing that supposedly makes America great, we are told, is our unfettered right to have issue conversations in the public square – even if they last more than six hours. The recent Occupy movement comes to mind where people spent weeks in the public square - well beyond the 11:00 pm limit the ordinance proposes.
It was good that the city council listened to the public last night - very encouraging. We'll have to pay close attention if and when another public hearing is scheduled so we can continue the dialogue on this 'mass gathering' ordinance.