OCEAN CITY – Street performers certainly have a place on the Boardwalk, but now, that place will become a bit more defined.
In efforts to reduce bottlenecking and ensure that all businesses are viewable by pedestrians on the Boardwalk, the City Council unanimously moved forward an ordinance that will make the current laws a bit clearer and easier to enforce.
The council, upon Mayor Rick Meehan’s recommendation, chose to amend chapter 62-5 of the town code, which deals with street performers and “peddlers”, and will now prohibit them to perform in any area of the Boardwalk other than at the street-ends.
“There’s no question that people enjoy watching the street performers, otherwise, they wouldn’t be standing around watching them,” said Meehan. “They do provide some sort of entertainment. The concern of the merchants, however, is when they are performing in front of their stores, they know their business drops off because the focus is on them and people aren’t looking into their stores.”
The current verbiage in the ordinance prohibits street performers from being within 10 feet of any bench or fire hydrant, which as Meehan pointed out, many performers set up their displays or play while sitting on the benches.
City Solicitor Guy Ayres said that naming the street-ends as the exclusive place street performers would be allowed doesn’t impair anyone’s rights, but warned the council could be making too many restrictions.
“You can designate the area as long as it doesn’t impede their First Amendment rights,” said Ayres, “but, the more you confine the spaces they can be, you may create some difficult situations.”
Councilman Jim Hall, on the other hand, was concerned with the permitting process, noting that performers are often granted permits before the town can learn about the act they plan to do on the Boardwalk.
“My concern is that they run in there at five minutes to five on Friday afternoon and demand a permit,” said Hall. “It gives [City Clerk] Carol [Jacobs] no time to talk to them and listen to their act and find out what they are planning to do. I suggest we set up a time during the week where people can come in and get a permit.”
Hall joked that he had suggested at a recent police commission meeting that the town essentially hold try-outs for street performers, but the commission didn’t want to have “American Idol on 65th Street.”
One of the other issues that was brought up by Council President Joe Mitrecic was a concern for a proper screening process since many of these performers attract young children, citing an incident last year in which a Ukrainian man dressed up as Patrick Star from the Spongebob cartoons, was arrested, convicted and eventually deported for fondling a young girl on the Boardwalk while doing his act.
“These people attract small children, because I don’t see many people my age stopping to see someone make balloon animals,” said Mitrecic. “It just concerns me that someone could sneak into this group that could be of real danger to children.”
Ayres noted that background checks have become increasingly difficult for authorities to do. He said that it would be essentially ineffective for seasonal street performers.
“Just because you have a prior criminal record, you don’t lose your First Amendment rights to express yourself,” said Ayres, “but, in many cases, by the time you got the background check completed, it would be the end of the summer.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, despite agreeing with and voting for the ordinance to move the performers to the end of the streets, was still concerned with the amount of bottlenecking and congestion that occurs on the Boardwalk when pedestrians stop to watch a performer.
“Performers add flavor and variety to the Boardwalk and they have a place, but we all need to do what’s best for the Boardwalk,” said Pillas. “My argument is not the competition, my argument is the taxes and the revenue generated for the town by tax dollars.”
Pillas contested that performers draw attention away from Boardwalk stores and often create congestion by setting up in areas that block traffic. She also brought up an ordinance that was passed in Santa Cruz California, which considers any street performer who accepts tips as a panhandler or beggar. Pillas wondered aloud if the council wanted to pursue something similar, but received no support.
“There have been a number of cases that allow them to collect money, so just because some city somewhere passed an ordinance, that takes away some sort of First Amendment right that I don’t think that it would be wise for this council to follow,” said Ayres.
In the end, council hoped that the new verbiage would make it easier for everyone involved, but Ayres warned that no ordinance is fool proof.
“There’s no way to tell if an ordinance is going to work until it is tested,” he said.