BATH — Strong opposition from the public Wednesday prompted the City Council to indefinitely postpone a vote a mass gathering ordinance.
The decision was a reversal from the council’s first vote March 2, which drew no public comment. Councilors unanimously approved the proposed rule at that meeting, which followed a Feb. 17 public workshop on the draft ordinance.
But Wednesday’s meeting was packed by opponents, some of whom were concerned the rule would impede on the Constitutional rights of assembly and free speech. Aware of this, the council prior to public comment unanimously approved an ordinance amendment stating that spontaneous gatherings would not be subject to a seven-day application deadline in the proposed rule.
“These gatherings are often engendered by topical events and, by their very nature, do not involve significant preplanning,” the amendment states. “Where a gathering occurs spontaneously, the seven (7) day application deadline shall not apply.”
The rule is geared to “a significant-sized event in the city, on city property or on a city street,” City Manager Bill Giroux told the council last month.
The ordinance provides a review process and set of standards applicants would have to meet to receive a permit. Council Chairwoman Mari Eosco spent about a half hour reading the entire 12-page ordinance aloud.
“Our intent for this was for major, major events,” she told the audience. “This has nothing to do with people who get together as a group to play croquet on the lawn … or people who go down to (Bath Iron Works) to protest.”
A BikeMaine event that took place in Bath in September 2014, and drew hundreds of bicyclists on their way across the state, triggered the ordinance, which has been intended to permit safe mass gatherings while protecting public health and safety, according to city staff.
Although the biking event went well, staff said, it made them realize Bath needed a set of guidelines for large-scale events and gatherings.
“The staff was scrambling, because they didn’t have anything with teeth, to help this major event come in,” Eosco said.
City Solicitor Roger Therriault defined a mass gathering as at least 50 people, but noted that school and governmental agency events, as well as Bath’s annual Heritage Days parade, would be excluded, along with meetings on private property.
The ordinance is to tackle “big events coming into town,” Eosco said. “We weren’t discussing any of the small things that are currently happening. … Gathering is part of what makes us awesome humans. And I don’t ever want that to stop.”
Applications would have to be submitted to the police chief at least one week before the event. Requirements would include access to traffic control, water supply and sanitation facilities, and refuse disposal. Restrictions would apply on the time of the event and sound levels, and licenses would be necessary for food or alcoholic beverages.
Event operators would also have to provide liability insurance, identify the city as an insured party, and would be liable for expenses incurred by the city for the gathering.
At least 47 Maine municipalities have such an ordinance, Therriault said.
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, 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.”
Councilor James Omo moved to table the ordinance until no later than the council’s August meeting. After that motion failed, Brackett’s motion to indefinitely table the ordinance passed 6-2, with Omo and Councilor Leverett Mitchell opposed.
Omo said he hopes “the energy that has come together in this room tonight” would be channeled into “constructive criticism, as to how this ordinance can work.”
Bruce Gagnon of Centre Street was among those at Wednesday’s Bath City Council meeting who spoke in opposition to a proposed mass gathering ordinance.