Street Performers Call New System ‘Badly Broken’; Council Seeks Constructive Approach To Solutions

Street Performers Call New System ‘Badly Broken’; Council Seeks Constructive Approach To Solutions
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OCEAN CITY – As the summer winds down, a list of what is not working for performers on the Boardwalk was voiced before the Mayor and City Council with officials assuring their concerns will be reviewed for possible change.

An ordinance on second reading to update language within the City Code regarding street performers came before the council on Monday evening.

On first reading, City Solicitor Guy Ayres explained the amendment is simply a “housekeeping measure” in updating the titles of city staff who have the power to issue citations, such as removing “cadets” and replacing it with “qualified police officers and employees authorized by the chief of police.”

At that time Mayor Rick Meehan took the opportunity to share what he had witnessed in observing the street performers the night before on the Boardwalk.

“It was amazing. They were all crowded with big crowds around them and they were all very successfully entertaining the public,” the mayor said.

A group of street performers, who were seen in front of City Hall protesting a few weeks ago, took exception to the mayor’s comments and made their presence known in the council chambers on Monday evening as the ordinance was scheduled for second reading, which was approved with an unanimous vote.

Performers came forward one-by-one voicing their issues with the regulations put in place this summer.

In mid-June, the council passed an ordinance implementing 32 designated spaces on the street ends of the Boardwalk from the Inlet to 9th Street. Performers are to sign-up with City Clerk Diana Chavis one week in advance on a Monday morning to be designated a space Monday through Friday, and on a Friday morning to be designated a space Friday through Sunday.

In most cases, there are two designated spaces per street end from the Inlet to 9th Street ranging from 10 feet by 10 feet, 5 feet by 10 feet and 5 feet by 5 feet. From 10th to 27th streets, performers are free to set up on any street end without signing up.

Other regulations governing the entire Boardwalk include no performer or vendor can place or allow any item exceeding five feet above ground, or affix props or equipment to the Boardwalk; leave items unattended for a period of 15 consecutive minutes; occupy more than one designated space at any given time or solicit persons to obtain or occupy an additional space on his or her behalf; purchase, sell, barter or exchange any designated space; attempt to reserve a designated space in any fashion other than the selection system; or touch other persons as in hair-braiding, nail painting or apply substances to other persons, including, but not limited to, paints, dyes and inks.

Boardwalk performer Ahlee Dawson voiced her opinion against not being able to share designated spaces that are not being used.

“These restrictions designate one spot to one performer for an entire week. I want to know how you can justify that,” Dawson asked. “These spots are left open just as much if not more than they are being used … if there is no one using a spot, then it is not a big deal if another performer comes in and uses it.”

Dawson, whose performance is strenuous atop an Indo Board, performs for a few hours at a time. She suggested a “priority sign-up” that would give the performer who signed up for a designated space jurisdiction over that location but if the space is not in use there would be protocol for another performer to fill in.

“For me to sign up at City Hall is unfair to the rest of the performers out here that want to use that spot during the day. It is a problem for me morally because I don’t want to take that spot away from them and I can’t share it with them, even though they are doing it anyway. Just so you know…,” she said.

Musician Wayne Jordan asserted the council’s intention to make street performers miserable is successful.

According to Jordan, performers are camping outside of City Hall the night prior to sign-up days to get a space.

“It is totally out of control … there are people paying others to hold place in line, there are people putting together different systems to hold a space or find a way to jockey their way in … they are spending most of their time trying to get a space, then they are actually performing. It is has put a ridiculous burden on these people,” he said.

Jordan pointed out some of the designated spaces, such as on Talbot Street, have been placed behind posts obstructing the view of the performers.

“I am hoping that some of you realize this system is very badly broken and needs to be attended to,” he said.

Magician/Comedian Joe Smith added the regulation of not being allowed to leave belongings unattended longer than 15 minutes is unsustainable, especially when it comes to standing in line to use the bathroom.

“In my mind, if I am coming out to express myself freely, then why do I have to register? That whole thing belays freedom of expression in my mind,” he said.

Face painter Jessica Brown, whose act has been eliminated all together by the regulations due to the abundance of henna tattoos on the Boardwalk, argued while henna ink is a health hazard she uses top-of-the-line, hypo-allergenic paints.

“Whoever told the media that we are all okay with this was a punch to the gut, and such a betrayal because obviously we are all standing in solidarity to tell you we are not okay with our rights being taken away,” she said. “This was a plan for you to eliminate performers … I have never had a problem and now I haven’t been able to do anything this year. I have had to get three jobs to compensate, and I am broken because I am not doing what I love anymore.”

Musician Alex Young disagreed with being confined to small boxes in most locations.

“The only thing missing is jail bars. While you can fit a performer, there is no room to express yourself,” he said. “I understand you are trying to create some order, and I realize two years ago it was a circus on the Boardwalk but this is not the right way to go about it … the mayor mentioned that we are thriving. Well we are not going to stand out there and throw a temper tantrum, we are going to try to perform but how are we thriving when we have to camp out fighting over spots in front of City Hall.”

According to painter/caricature artist Michael Moeller, he was threatened with a citation for sitting under an umbrella over 5 feet tall to shield himself from the sun.

“So now I have less rights than every beach goer who can bring an umbrella out to shield themselves from the sun, and I am sleeping in front of City Hall because I was accosted by police that I wasn’t allowed to sleep in my car where I wanted to be in air conditioning because it was a hot night,” he said. “We are a minority and as you can see today we are a very vocal and passionate one, and I would like to thank you for making me feel like a minority for the first time in my life. Thank you for educating me. I have never felt such pain and suffering laid on me by my government.”

According to Meehan, Chavis is taking notes of the performers’ concerns that will be reviewed by the council following the summer season. However, changes have been made in the interim to help relieve some of the problems, such as Moeller has been given permission to use an umbrella, and designated spaces have been allowed to be shared in certain circumstances.

Going down the list, Meehan acknowledged some of the regulations have caused unintended circumstances and it would make sense to change a few, such as the height restriction, the 15-minute time limit in leaving belongings unattended, size and placement of some locations and even the use of face paint.

“It was commented that we did this to make your lives miserable. Well that is ridiculous. We spent hours upon hours working with a committee, attorneys and listening to all the street performers in trying to put an ordinance together that worked,” the mayor said. “Nothing was meant to cause problems for the street performers. They [regulations] were meant to try to make it better up there for everybody. We have heard what you have had to say, and we are almost at the end of the season. At that time allow us to take another look at this to see where we can make changes to help everybody up there.”

Councilman Dennis Dare agreed, and stated he looks forward to discussing the issues.

“I listened intently tonight and I heard a lot about how things are broken but nothing about how to fix it. That is the other side to the issue,’ Dare said. “I would like to hear more constructive criticism moving forward, so that we have options that might work for them that might also work for us that we haven’t already considered.”