OCEAN CITY — Although the debate got a little chippy at times, cooler heads prevailed this week in the latest attempt to tweak Ocean City’s ordinance regulating Boardwalk street performers.
The Boardwalk Task Force met on Wednesday to take into consideration some of the concerns voiced during a public hearing last month on the city’s busker ordinance called “broken” or “miserable” by many of the performers. In late July, the Town of Ocean City enacted its latest ordinance regulating street performers and the new system was in place through August and September.
While the task force meeting on Wednesday focused on the nuts and bolts of the new ordinance, from the details of the sign-up process to the hours of the day and even the length of the season, it had considerable philosophical overtones. While the members of the panel come at the issues from different perspectives, calm and reason won the day for the most part. However, there were times when the process threatened to unravel.
Task force member Bob Rothermel essentially summed up the purpose of the ordinance and the task force in simplest terms.
“Somehow, we’ve got to live in this same space,” he said. “It has to be controlled somehow.”
However, fellow task force member Mark Chase, who successfully challenged Ocean City’s original busker ordinance a few years back, had a different opinion on the entire street performer ordinance process.
“You’re in essence trying to control and eliminate free speech and expression,” he said. “That flies in the face of freedom of speech and the First Amendment. I’m completely against any sort of registration.”
Rothermel dismissed any notion the ordinance was an attempt to stifle freedom of expression and added the process of regulating street performers had become more difficult than it had to be.
“It seems like we’re booking the Performing Arts Center,” he said. “It’s crazy. The whole point of this is to create a venue for self-expression. The government is not telling performers what they can speak or express, but there has to be some order.”
Despite the philosophical differences, the panel was able to systematically address many of the issues that arose with the new ordinance. 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. 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 and often contentious debate, the Council adopted a new ordinance in July. The new ordinance essentially adheres to the spirit of the town’s original ordinance regarding street performers on the Boardwalk, an ordinance that was successfully challenged in federal court on two occasions over First Amendment and freedom of expression issues, but added new elements including a sign-up lottery of sorts for the designated spaces from 9th Street south. The new registration process created the most consternation for the street performers, many of whom camped out in front of City Hall two times a week during the season in order to get the first crack at best locations and largest designated spaces.
During a public hearing last month, the complaints with the new ordinance were vast and varied, but the debate almost came back to the perceptively flawed sign-up process. Performers could sign up for one of the designated areas from 9th Street to South 1st Street 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.
City Clerk Diana Chavis essentially regulated the sign-up process each Monday and Thursday morning when her office opened for business. The performers signed up for one of many designated spaces of varying sizes, from the 10-foot by 10-foot spaces to the smaller five-foot by five-foot spaces.
“Last summer, there were incremental changes that helped move the process along,” said Boardwalk Task Force Chair Greg Shockley. “The biggest point of contention was the sign-up and the assigning of spaces.”
Shockley said while the new ordinance has its flaws, which was the point of the public hearing last month and subsequent reconvening of the task force on Wednesday, it did restore some measure of order on the Boardwalk through the later summer where chaos essentially existed before.
“We’re trying to make it work,” he said. “Actually, it went pretty smoothly last year.”
However, Chase had a different opinion on how the first couple of months of the new ordinance went.
“It didn’t go smoothly last year,” he said. “The system is broken. We had to regulate ourselves before we even got to Diana. The only thing registration does is pacify the stores. That’s all it does.”
Chase pointed to the flawed registration process that had performers camping out and waiting for the clerk’s office to open two days a week.
“We lost our dignity being in that tent city out in front of City Hall,” he said. “We have to figure out what to do with the 10×10 spaces.”
Task force member and Malibu’s Surf Shop owner Lee Gerachis had a different take on rotating the designated spots for performers on the Boardwalk.
“We should make it like the surf beaches and move them a block every day,” he said. “I’d like to have a surf beach in front of my shop for a whole week, but it doesn’t work that way.”
After considerable debate, the task force came to an agreement on how to retain the registration process while making it more amenable to the performers. The task force voted to have just a single sign-up day on Monday each week with the performers registering for their Monday through Thursday space and their Friday through Sunday space on the same day. While it wouldn’t eliminate the contentious registration altogether, it would consolidate and streamline the process.
“We need to have the registration once a week,” said Shockley. “That simplifies the whole thing. They’re moving every week and that will alleviate some of the concerns of the store owners.”
With an agreement on the single registration day, the task force turned its attention to the allocation of the different sized spaces. Chavis explained there were 14 of the larger spaces from 9th Street south, but only six or eight of the various performers needed a space that large. The rest of the designated spots are five feet by five feet and are sprinkled throughout the south end of the Boardwalk. Chase said the different sized locations proved to be a point of contention through the sign-up process last summer.
“If we’re going to keep that system, there has to be some kind of way to separate the 10×10 spaces,” he said. “You’ll have costume characters taking up spaces needed by the larger acts.”
Shockley told Chase there had to be some measure of self-regulation from the performers for the system to work.
“That’s where you need to self-regulate,” he said. “If somebody is signing up for a 10×10 that doesn’t need it, that’s where you need to self-regulate through your culture. A guy playing a solo guitar does not need a 10×10.”
Again, after considerable debate, the task force agreed to offer the 10×10 spaces first for the performers who need the larger space the most, and the roll the remaining larger spots into a second lottery with the rest of the 5×5 spaces.
In another issue, Chase asked his colleagues on the task force if the start-up time for buskers each day could be moved from 10 a.m. to 9 a.m., but the idea got little traction.
“I’m okay with 10 a.m. and I think that’s fine,” said Gerachis. “It’s good to have a little respite and peace and quiet on the Boardwalk. I think I would go in the other direction before I’d make it any earlier.”
Gerachis opined the 10 a.m. start time was appropriate and suggested it could be moved back to 11 a.m. when bikes and pets are no longer allowed on the Boardwalk and the trams start running etc.
“I’ve been up there every single day for 25 years,” he said. “It gets crowded up there in the morning with the bikes and I wouldn’t go any earlier than 10 a.m.”
The task force also debated changing the registration process for buskers from the current May 1 to Sept.30 to Memorial Day to Labor Day. Chase said Labor Day would be a more appropriate time to stop the regulations.
“There are not a lot of performers here in September,” he said. “If you make it Labor Day, all you would do is eliminate some of Diana’s paperwork.”
However, Gerachis opined and the task force agreed the Sept. 30 stop time should remain in place.
“Honestly, I’m against having any performers up there,” he said. “I’m perfectly content with having it go through September. It’s still very busy and there are public safety issues with the car shows and everything else going on.”
In the end, the task force agreed to a single registration day each Monday with a rotating system for buskers, kept the start time each day and 10 a.m. and kept the season schedule from May 1 to Sept. 30. The larger 10-foot by 10-foot spaces would be doled out in a first lottery, followed by the rest of the spaces in a separate lottery. The task force will consolidate the proposed changes and make a formal recommendation to the Mayor and Council.