Urban Politics #113; Special Events Ordinance

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • Special Events Ordinance
  • Background Of Special Events Ordinance
  • Special Events Task Force
  • Proposal To Revise Special Events Ordinance
  • My Analysis
  • Amendments In Committee

Special Events Ordinance

The City Council is currently considering Council Bill 113801, which would amend the Special Events Ordinance by extending its authority to events on private property that have impacts on public space or resources.

The legislation was voted out of the Public Safety Committee chaired by Councilmember Jim Compton on Wednesday, September 19, and will come before the Full Council for a final vote on Monday, October 8. The ordinance passed 3-0, with Councilmember Steinbrueck and myself abstaining.

Background Of Special Events Ordinance

The City Council passed the Special Events Ordinance in 1991. The ordinance created a Special Events Committee, composed of representatives of several City departments, including Police, Fire, Budget, Construction and Land Use, Transportation, the Mayor’s Office, and others.

The ordinance states, “A Special Event Permit or authorization from the Special Events Committee is required for any event in a park or public place that is reasonably anticipated to require police personnel in order to provide crowd or traffic control; the ordinance does not include an exact definition for what constitutes a “special event.”

The Special Events permit is in addition to other permits regularly required by the City of Seattle. The Special Events Committee can determine terms and conditions for events.

The existing Special Events Ordinance applies only to events that take place in public space. Over 250 permits were issued in 2000, for events from street fairs and block parties to larger events such as Bumbershoot and Folklife.

Special Events Task Force

The origin of these amendments lies in the recommendations of the Special Events Task Force, one of three task forces formed by the Mayor in the wake of Mardi Gras in February. They recommended expanding the regulatory authority of the Special Events Committee to include events on private property that impact public spaces and resources, such as Mardi Gras.

On August 15, the proposed legislation was presented to the Public Safety Committee of the City Council; it was discussed at length, and placed on hold for a few weeks. A revised version was then brought forward on September 19.

Proposal To Revise Special Events Ordinance

The crux of this proposal is contained in the definition the ordinance introduces of ‘special events’, as an event that:

· is reasonably expected to cause or result in more than 50 people gathering in whole or in part in a park or other public place; and,
· will have a substantial impact on such park or other public place; and,
· is reasonably expected to require the provision of substantial public services;

The definition of the term “substantial” is key:

“Substantial impact on a park or other public place” is defined as “an event would preclude in whole or in part the public’s normal and customary use of such park or public place” (such as sidewalks, streets, alleys, etc).

“Substantial public services” is defined as “an increase in the amount, scope, or level of necessary fire, police, traffic control, crowd control, or other public services above those that would normally be required without the event. With respect to police resources, “substantial public services” means resources for crowd management or traffic control required for the event over and above the normal deployment of police in that geographic area of the city at the time of day during which the event will occur.”

Other revisions to the ordinance are included as well:

· the introduction of an administrative review (i.e. appeal) process;
· requiring the Executive to prepare a proposal for “one-stop shopping” within six months, to simplify the overall permitting process for events;
· requiring the Special Events Committee to report back to the Council on its currently planned review of its present rules and guidelines, by January, 2002.

My Analysis

I believe some elements of the ordinance are laudable, in particular the three listed above. Councilmember Compton deserves credit for introducing the latter two in the revised version. In addition, the definition of “special events” is clearer, and better written than earlier.

However, I believe it is important to emphasize that the revisions marks a fundamental change in the nature of the Special Events Ordinance, by adding events on private property to its regulatory scope. While I am not opposed on principle to regulating events like the Mardi Gras, I believe any amendments to the Special Events Ordinance must be narrowly tailored to avoid overextending the law or allowing for discriminatory application of the law.

At a briefing I received, City staff informed me 3-5 events per year would likely be added. However, I believe the ordinance is written too vaguely that it could allow for a broad interpretation to regulate numerous additional events. This could be an unintended consequence of the ordinance.

If interpreted broadly, the above definitions could classify any blockage of public space with 50 people, and any calls to the Police Department could result in an officer arriving on a scene that could be labeled as a Special Event by the officer. This could conceivably be applied to lines at the Showbox, 5th Avenue Theatre, Cinerama or to crowds leaving events at those facilities. While this is the intent, the vague language might allow for such an interpretation in future years.

Further, it’s not entirely clear how the Special Events committee would find out about a private event on private property to determine if the event needs a special event permit. If the sponsors don’t have one, and the promoter or business owner doesn’t know that they should have applied, he or she could be given a misdemeanor citation, with penalties up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail. While this these penalties exist under current Special Events Ordinance, adding events on private property could create a new enforcement problems.

In addition, the City of Seattle has lost several lawsuits in recent years dealing with regulation of nightlife, in particular regarding the application of the state Added Activities statute, struck down by Superior Court in 1999 as a prior restraint. Overextending the Special Events Ordinance could result in similar legal challenges and require the use of City resources to defend questionable laws, and payment of settlements or lawsuits.

Amendments In Committee

Because of my concerns, I proposed amendments in committee, three of which passed;

· expanding the appeal process, by allowing for the appeal not only of denials of applications for permits, but for the conditions placed on the permit;
· clarifying the basis of denying a permit;
· and requiring the Special Events Committee to place its rules and regulations-currently under review-on the Internet, and circulate them widely. This amendment is designed to assist inexperienced promoters by lowering the learning curve, to alleviate problems through better distribution of information and communication (the current Special Events Handbook is very good and highly useful, but not widely known).

Another amendment, to narrow the definition of special events from 50 to 500 people, did not pass. I proposed this amendment in order to address concerns about over-regulation of private events, and bring the intent of the ordinance in line with adding Mardi Gras size events, but not smaller events. The changes in the ordinance won’t be hard for large promoters to comply with; however, they could be onerous to smaller promoters.

Councilmember Steinbrueck proposed changing the number ’50’ to ‘250’, but this failed by a 3-3 vote.

No one wants to see a repeat of the Mardi Gras tragedy. However, in crafting new laws, I believe we must be cautious not to overreact and create new problems beyond what we are intending to solve.

To view a copy of the Special Events Ordinance (now Seattle Municipal Code Section 15.52), go to http://clerk.seattle.gov/~public/code1.htm and type “15.52” in the Code Section Number field.

To view a copy of the current version of Council Bill 113801, e-mail my staff member Newell Aldrich at “newell.aldrich@seattle.gov“.

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