OCEAN CITY- A street performer accused the Ocean City Mayor and Council of retaliation this week as they passed an ordinance to restrict performance of any kind on the Boardwalk at North Division Street due to the street’s key role as an emergency access point.
The ordinance prohibits, “exercise or perform such activity or display in any area of the Boardwalk other than within the area encompassed within the extended boundaries of the street ends, except for the area encompassed within the extended boundaries from the south side of the Boardwalk ramp on the south side of N. Division Street to the north side of the Boardwalk ramp on the north side of N. Division Street, where such activity is also prohibited.”
The council approved the ordinance in a unanimous vote. The council also asked Mayor Rick Meehan to sign the ordinance as an emergency ordinance and he concurred. The law went into effect has soon as the mayor signed, which he did on the spot during the Mayor and City council meeting on Monday evening.
Spray paint artist Mark Chase later approached the Mayor and City Council to discuss their final vote. Chase has led the argument that the city has no right to remove performers from North Division Street or forbid them from being vendors because it is against his right to exercise the First Amendment.
“I ponder why the council wishes to abandon American values and make North Division Street a constitutional free zone,” he said.
Chase accused the city council of ignoring his offering in assisting the council in amending the ordinance to eliminate North Division Street and the problems that would incur. Last month, Councilman Brent Ashley and Doug Cymek met with a group of street performers, representing the council in the form of a “street performer committee,” to discuss the busker’s concerns over the rules and regulations proposed restricting the performers on the Boardwalk.
“The so called street performer committee was really nothing more than a joke,” Chase said. “It was you guys trying to validate what you wanted. We feel, as street performers, our concerns were really never taken into effect to begin with.”
Chase said to ban North Division Street as an area of expression is unconstitutional. He added that if the police enforce the ordinance, they will be held liable for deprivation of rights, and the council will be in violation of conspiracy against rights. He added that he felt the council was retaliating against him because he had been the most vocal over the proposed law and the most successful performer on the Boardwalk, which has gone unnoticed.
“You have the rights, but you don’t have the right to take our rights away,” he said. “Just because someone complains or disagrees with our performance or what we are expressing does not allow the police force to remove them from the public or ban them from the public, which I witnessed over the weekend.”
Chase concluded by asking the council to stop hiding behind public safety because that is nothing more than a misnomer then a true agenda to remove the successful expressionists from the city.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas responded to Chase by saying the town’s effort in public safety, egress, and access has been active long before he had come to Ocean City.
“This is an effort that has taken place for years and years on record before there was you doing your thing on the Boardwalk,” she said.
Councilman Doug Cymek referred to the two hour and 45 minutes that he and Ashley spent meeting with a group of street performers to address their concerns in response to Chase’s accusation that the town ignored him and others.
“I know you hang your hat on your First Amendment right, but the community and our people we are here to serve and protect have a right to have an emergency access to the Boardwalk and the beach unobstructed,” Cymek said. “So, as you’ve heard tonight, we’re not letting anyone set up under those arches anymore, it’s not just artists.”
Mayor Rick Meehan made clear that Chase’s comment over the council ignoring his concerns was his own opinion.
“I suggested the committee and the reason I did that is so that you would have direct dialogue with members of the council that were representing us and they were to bring back information to us and hopefully in that atmosphere have open dialogue,” the mayor said.
Meehan added that the council recognizing Chase’s success is not retaliation but a compliment, nonetheless because large crowds gather around his area of his performance creates an issue if it is the area of emergency access.
“Why don’t you respect that…if you were out on that beach and you were in the midst of a massive heart attack you would appreciate that access,” Cymek concluded.
In an email submitted to The Dispatch on Wednesday Chase wrote, “I can promise you, Americans will have their freedom of expression returned on North Division Street and all areas of the city…simply have patience while Ocean City continues to make impractical, unconstitutional, and immoral actions of segregation and discrimination toward street performers.”
Chase said that on Tuesday June 21, the same day the council eliminated North Division Street from performances of any kind in an emergency ordinance, he was shut down in a non-designated area when the restaurant Caruso complained to the police that they smelled Chase’s spray paint and it was bothersome. Chase said that he hadn’t fully set up his performance area nor had he used his paints yet at that time.
“The police force has over stepped their bounds by forcing artists, magicians, and any form of expression to be removed for any form of complaint whether founded or unfounded,” Chase wrote. “I can guarantee the police will arrest me this summer unless they begin to back down and stop enforcing unconstitutional laws that the council haphazardly make.”