A group of motorcyclists took to the Casper City Council podium in early May to raise a grievance about a city ordinance. In the months since, council members have trudged through painstaking conversation after painstaking conversation. They’ve gone back and forth on the legalese. They’ve retooled a handful of words in a handful of places. And, still, they’re fielding issues they hadn’t considered before.
This is the process of writing a city ordinance. But without the tedium, the laws the council writes could have unintended ripple effects for Casper residents.
The bikers who approached the council in May had recently completed their 32nd annual American Bikers for Awareness, Training and Education parade. But this year things were different, they said.
Their route had been shortened and they were required to purchase liability insurance before their parade permit could be approved. The insurance cost the group $260. Those who spoke to the City Council said they’d never had to purchase insurance before and didn’t understand why this year was different.
The reason for the change was the city’s Special Events Planning Guide and Policy, which according to city documents was passed in November. The guide requires organizers to get proper permitting, and for events that will have 100 or more people, organizers must also purchase insurance. This requirement is not in the original parade ordinance.
The council took up the complaint, as it often does when residents come to them with frustrations or advice.
The council’s first mission was to clarify the contradiction between the parade ordinance and the special events guide. There was disagreement among council members whether there even was a contradiction, but ultimately they settled on inserting a reference to the special events guide in the parade ordinance. This, the council agreed, would ensure future event organizers wouldn’t face the same frustrations.
But rather than settle the issue, it opened up an entirely new discussion about the special events guide itself. Council members wanted to give organizers enough time to appeal potential permit denials, but they also wanted to make sure the city has enough time to prepare for things like parades, block parties and anything else that would create work for city employees.
They’re still working through those requirements, but most recently, another problem came up. Because organizers are required to obtain insurance for large events, some on the council worried it could limit free speech.
Councilwoman Khrystyn Lutz asked at the most recent council work session if the ordinance included a clear definition of protest versus a parade. Right now, the ordinance doesn’t.
City Attorney John Henley confirmed that the parade definition in the ordinance is broad enough to include a protest.
And so now, after more than four months of work, Henley will take the ordinance back to the city attorney office and rework it again.
“There’s a reason we have nine members on the council,” Mayor Charlie Powell said. “So that the people who follow you inherit a set of ordinances and procedures that have been put together in a thoughtful manner.”
Even if that thoughtfulness takes months to coalesce into a passable ordinance.
But considering all its options now could mean sparing the city legal or moral conflicts in the future, Henley said.
A recent case in California underscores this concern. The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego threatened to sue the city of Escondido in 2012 over a similar special events guide issue. The ACLU alleged the guide violated the First Amendment because it didn’t allow for spontaneous demonstrations and it allowed city officials to deny event permits based on the content of the demonstrations.
There are myriad examples of unintended consequences of particular city ordinances hurting populations more than helping. Anti-vagrancy laws have been shown to hurt homeless populations, especially when those laws result in ticketing residents who don’t have the means to pay their fines, as detailed in a U.S. Department of Justice report.
Nuisance ordinances, meant to help police officers handle noise complaints, have led to domestic violence victims being evicted from their residences because their landlords didn’t want the liability, as reported by the ACLU.
Henley said taking the extra time up front to look at potential ramifications helps limit the city’s exposure to these kinds of issues.
“When you get down to the nuances, you need to double-check things,” he said.
Powell echoed that but also stressed that residents have options to appeal to the council when a law isn’t working as intended.
“We take public comment at every regular meeting and we all have email addresses,” he said.