OCEAN CITY — While the Town of Ocean City’s new ordinance regulating Boardwalk street performers has eased the friction between buskers and the business community to some degree, underlying tensions still simmer and were on display during a review of last summer on Monday.
On Monday, the Boardwalk Task Force held a public hearing to receive comments on the new street performer ordinance enacted in late July and review what worked and what needs tweaking. A recurring theme throughout the public hearing, during which several buskers and members of the business community testified, was the new registration and rotation component. For the former, the sign-up and rotation process was “miserable” and “broken” and needs to be removed, while the latter opined the registration element restored the peace and order on the boards this summer.
In recent years, Ocean City has struggled with the proliferation of street performers, from musicians and magicians to spray paint artists and caricature artists and from costumed characters to even a pole dancer. While street performers have been around for practically as long as there has been a Boardwalk, in recent years, the town has wrestled with where they can set up and what is considered protected freedom of expression under the First Amendment.
To that end, a Boardwalk Task Force was created early in 2015 to explore the issues and make some recommendations to the Mayor and Council. After considerable debate, the council adopted a new ordinance in July essentially adhering to the spirit of the original street performer ordinance while adding a registration and rotation component.
The new system, which included weekly sign-ups for the designated areas on the Boardwalk from 9th Street south, was in place for much of the latter part of the summer. While it appears to have achieved the desired results to some degree, the registration and rotation process continues to be a source of consternation for the buskers, many of whom called it broken or miserable.
Performers could sign up for one of the many designated areas from 9th to South 1st streets from Monday to Thursday, and then sign up again for a different location from Friday to Sunday. As a result, buskers often camped out overnight around City Hall and lined up for a chance to get one of the designated first come, first served locations.
Boardwalk Task Force Chair Greg Shockley said at the onset of public hearing on Monday the intent was to “assess and reassess the good and the bad,” and City Clerk Diana Chavis, who served as peacekeeper to a large degree throughout the latter part of the summer after the ordinance was adopted in July, then laid out the most prevalent complaints with the new system. While the issues were as varied as the street performers themselves, the recurring theme for much of the hearing was the flawed registration and sign-up system.
From the Ocean City Police Department’s standpoint, Sgt. James Grady, who most often patrols the Boardwalk at night and who has become a liaison of sorts for the buskers, said the ordinance achieved the desired results, for the most part.
“Things have gone well,” he said. “From my perspective, things were a little more orderly. The ordinance seems to have taken away some of the gray areas and it’s more black and white from an enforcement standpoint.”
Grady said the ordinance was successful to some degree in eliminating the “us versus them” mentality that pervaded the city’s relationship with the performers and pointed to the almost non-existent number of citations issued.
“My belief is there was only one citation written for a street performer,” he said. “That was a blatant case. In that case, the citizen wanted me to write a citation. Most performers know me. We have a good relationship and it’s not adversarial. We worked together through problems. I have to credit them because they didn’t create a lot of problems and stayed within the guidelines.”
Spray paint artist Mark Chase, who successfully challenged Ocean City’s original street performer ordinance, serves on the task force as a representative of the buskers. Chase said while the ordinance had some successes, the registration component was flawed and the performers should be able to go back to self-regulating the rotation.
“We are grown-ups,” he said. “We were able to work with the broken sign-up system all summer.”
Long-time street performer Mike Truitt said the performers for years were successful in self-regulating the locations and urged the task force to consider tweaking the sign-up system or removing it altogether.
“I want to thank Ocean City for letting me play,” he said. “There are a lot of musicians here and they know you have a spot and they have a spot, and we’re all just trying to make a little extra money.”
Truitt pointed to another issue with the ordinance, which he believes does not address the costumed characters on the Boardwalk.
“I’ve been playing up there for the last 20 years including the last 10 at 9th Street,” he said. “My only complaint is the foreign students in costumes. Somebody drops them off and pimps them out. It’s like some kind of syndicate.”
Street performer Mike Moeller also voiced concern with the perceptively flawed registration system.
“One of my main problems is the lack of spaces and fewer opportunities,” he said. “The registration system doesn’t serve any purpose other than the rotation. With the limited number of spaces, spots were taken be performers with no demonstrable skills. The problems increased and the tensions were high.”
Moeller said the buskers were amenable to many of the changes spelled out in the new ordinance, but urged the task force to eliminate the registration and rotation system.
“Most performers are good people and respect the law,” he said. “They want to be in compliance. The registration has to go. It’s just a miserable situation and too many people are unhappy.”
Performer Ahlee Dawson agreed the registration system left some buskers on the outside looking in.
“The registration and rotation process is biased,” she said. “The business people complain, but how can we hurt business when we draw people in front of your businesses?”
Dawson pointed to two successful legal challenges to the town’s street performer ordinance.
“The Supreme Court has already ruled registration is illegal,” she said. “If you must keep registration in place, make it make sense. The business owners come down hard on us, but we, if anybody, attract people to the Boardwalk.”
Meanwhile, street performer advocate Tony Christ pointed to the legal costs associated with producing the ordinance. Christ obtained invoices from City Solicitor Guy Ayres as well as Venable LLP, a firm specializing in First Amendment issues, through requests to the city.
“How much do you think it cost to produce this nine-page ordinance?” he said. “It cost $206,000. That’s $22,900 per page. That’s $206,000 in taxpayer money.”
The business community was also well represented on Monday and many said the new ordinance was successful in restoring order to what was most recently chaos on the Boardwalk.
“I think what you’re seeing tonight is the summer was a great summer and everything worked very well,” said downtown business owner Jimmy Miller. “The biggest thing we’re hearing is complaints about the registration and sign-up, but it’s necessary. The sign-up is the best part of this. People loved every act because of the rotations and the tourists could get to the beach.”
While some street performers raised issue with the section of the ordinance that prevents buskers from leaving their set-ups unattended for more than 15 minutes at a time, Miller said that section needs to be strictly enforced.
“What stops some goofball with a pressure cooker bomb from performing for a while and then walking away?” he said. “Can you do this in an airport? In Washington, D.C.? At Harborplace?”
Taking a stronger tone, Miller suggested the buskers likely wouldn’t be satisfied until there was no street performer ordinance.
“The street performers got everything they wanted and now they’re pushing for more and more,” he said. “You have everything you want and the task force is working with you. I don’t think you have to do anything to this ordinance.”
Downtown business owner Jeff Albright said the designated areas and the sign-up and rotation system were successful in eliminating many of the logjams created in certain trouble spots along the Boardwalk.
“The hotel people were happy they could walk unobstructed to the beach,” he said. “The tourists and visitors were happy for the most part and that’s the most important thing.”
Business owner Bruce Krasner agreed the sign-up and rotation system needed to remain in the ordinance.
“The registration process needs to stay in place,” he said. “Why do buskers want to be downtown? That’s where the tourists are. That’s where the action is.”
Krasner said the sign-up process was not too onerous and was just part of conducting business, just as traditional brick-and-mortar business owners do.
“Just like any business, you have to work hard, and if that means getting up early in the morning to get ahead, then that’s what you need to do,” he said. “I could open my store at noon, but I’m up there at seven in the morning.”
After the public comment period ended, the task force members had their opportunity to weigh in, and while most reserved their comments, Chase did say he would go to bat for the buskers on the registration issue.
“I’m going to hold most of my comments, but I’m going to push for a way to get rid of sign-ups,” he said.
Shockley closed by thanking all involved for working together on making the system better, particularly Chavis.
“A lot of people need to be thanked for this,” he said. “Diana has been at ground zero. She was the arbitrator and she got things done for you.”
Shockley said the task force and the new ordinance borne out of it were successful in relieving some of the long-standing tension between the business community and the performers.
“When we started, there was a good bit of animosity between the business community and the performers, but I believe that has died down,” he said. “Now we have a working relationship where there never was one before. Clearly, we come from different perspectives on how to earn a living, but we now have some common ground.”
Shockley said the task force would take all of the comments and suggestions to heart and would reconvene to consider any changes to the ordinance.
“The biggest issue we’ve heard is the sign-ups,” he said. “Mark [Chase] is your voice and we listen to him. We will take what we heard into consideration and sometime in the very near future we will get back together. You will have a document to put before the council.”