Street Performers Officially Challenge New Ordinance; Group Wants City’s Solicitor Suspended

Street Performers Officially Challenge New Ordinance; Group Wants City’s Solicitor Suspended
1 Boardwalk IMG 1154 08 19 2014

OCEAN CITY — Just one day after a federal judge rejected an attempt to piggyback on a prior case, a collection of Boardwalk street performers late last week filed a formal complaint in U.S. District Court challenging Ocean City’s new ordinance regulating buskers.

Last Tuesday, a group of six Boardwalk street performers filed a motion in U.S. District Court to reopen or reconsider the case of Chase v. Town of Ocean City for the purpose of seeking declaratory judgment against the resort’s contentious street performer ordinance implemented this summer. Within one day, U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander, who presided over the Chase case, sent the motion back to the plaintiffs, opining “only parties to the case may file documents,” and “you may wish to file a new case.”

The plaintiffs, led by Tony Christ, who purposely received the one and only citation issued to a street performer this summer, along with Jim Starck, Joseph Smith, Bill Campion, Sr., Jesse Guthrie and Robert Peasley, heeded the judge’s advice and last Thursday filed a new complaint against the Town of Ocean City. Among other things, the complaint seeks a declaratory judgment against the Town of Ocean City, which, if approved, would essentially dismiss the busker ordinance implemented in July in its entirety. The complaint also seeks $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages against the town for the plaintiffs, and a 90-day license suspension for City Solicitor Guy Ayres, ostensibly because the town’s attorney knew or should have known the new registration requirement in the ordinance violated the Consent Decree from the Chase case in 2011.

In simplest terms, the complaint attempts to illustrate the town’s new street performance is a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate buskers from the Boardwalk altogether.

“The Town of Ocean City’s new ordinance has placed the performers under extreme financial pressure and intends, through its enforcement that began on July 27, to eliminate traditional performers from the Boardwalk in the Town of Ocean City,” the complaint reads.

The original case was filed back in June of 2011 by Boardwalk spray paint artist Mark Chase, who challenged the town’s then-recently adopted ordinance on street performers on several grounds. Essentially, Chase asserted the town’s ordinance violated First Amendment rights to freedom of expression, among other things. Hollander ultimately agreed with Chase and issued a preliminary injunction and later Consent Decree clearly outlining how the town must handle the street performer issue on the Boardwalk.

Over three years later, the town adopted a new ordinance addressing street performer issues, which it enacted in July. The new ordinance was crafted after careful study by a task force, ironically on which Chase served. After considerable debate and public hearings, the town adopted the new street performer ordinance which essentially adheres to the spirit of the old ordinance, but created a new registration and rotation plan for the performers on the Boardwalk.

The new ordinance, particularly the registration and rotation requirements that had many buskers camping out overnight at City Hall in order to sign up for designated spots on the Boardwalk, has continued to be a point of contention and was the crux of the complaint filed by the named buskers last week.

“The new registration process was called ‘selection’ and eliminated all the older performers, the handicap performers as well as those performers who held second jobs and did not have the financial wherewithal to sustain spending 12 to 16 hours outside of City Hall or paying for someone to wait in line for them,” the complaint reads. “Performers were severely disadvantaged during the 19 separate registrations.”

The registration, or “selection” process, was implemented in late July and continued through September. According to the complaint, it achieved the town’s perceived goal of eliminating buskers by attrition.

“The fact is that implementing the new ordinance for two months on one week this summer has eliminated at least 50 percent of the performers on the Boardwalk and substantially reduced the incomes of those remaining,” the complaint reads.

Ironically, much of the 21-page complaint references the $206,000-plus the town spent with Ayres’ firm and another firm hired to craft the ordinance through the entire process dating back to the original Chase case.

However, with the plaintiffs filing a new case last week, the figure will assuredly increase substantially. After Christ continued to hammer the council on Monday with the soaring legal fees, Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out the latest legal action is contributing to that.

“We never like to pay legal fees, but some of Mr. Christ’s actions are causing us even more legal fees,” he said. “We try to resolve issues and resolve them the best we can and hopefully that’s the direction we’re heading.”

While the complaint filed last week is a new stand-alone legal action, it still attempts to reopen or reconsider the Chase case, if only for the economy of time and money.

“The simple reason to reopen is that the same issues that were aired in Chase v. town of Ocean City are still present under different labels,” the complaint reads. “To open a new proceeding would be wasteful of the court’s scarce time and resources. To ignore the cumulative wisdom and history of these issues would be unwise.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.