OCEAN CITY – The Town of Ocean City is facing yet another street performer lawsuit, but this time, it isn’t the only defendant in the case.
Eight street performers, acting under the supervision and guidance of local rabble rouser Tony Christ, filed a $2 million lawsuit on Nov. 20 in the United States District Court of Maryland against the Town of Ocean City, City Solicitor Guy Ayres and unnamed businesses on the Boardwalk.
“These performers feel that their livelihoods are in jeopardy, and the town has made a huge investment in an ordinance we believe is unconstitutional,” said Christ.
Harsh Claims Made
The lawsuit is seeking $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages from the town and another $1 million from unnamed shop owners identified only as “John Does” in the filing for “harassing, interfering, threatening, and in general, acting in a manner to drive and eliminate performers from the Boardwalk.”
In addition, the lawsuit seeks to suspend Ayres for 90 days from practicing law, accusing him and Mayor Rick Meehan of Scienter, which is a legal term that accuses someone of intent or knowledge of wrongdoing.
In a nutshell, Christ has a conspiracy theory that involves Meehan and Ayres and it’s outlined in count III on page 26 of the filing.
“The Mayor and the City Solicitor acted to deceive the court by concealing their agenda, wasting city revenues, withholding information, obstructing enforcement of ordinance and pandering to special interests,” reads the accusation.
Ayres admitted that in his long law career, this is the first time he has ever been pulled into a case and named as a defendant.
“Personally, I think the lawsuit is very short on substance, and very long on dripping sarcasm,” he said. “At the proper time, the city will file a response, but to my knowledge, I don’t know if Mr. Christ followed the proper federal rules of procedure for serving the document.”
In the document’s certificate of service on page 32, it explains that Christ went to City Hall and dropped four copies of the document on the desk of City Clerk Diana Chavis. Ayres contends that is not the proper procedure.
In addition, Ayres hinted that the lawsuit’s accusations levied against business owners for filing complaints dating back to 2012 might have some issues, too.
“It begs the question, if a street performer has the right to be on the Boardwalk and perform,” he said. “Does that mean shop owners have lesser rights to express their viewpoints?”
The lawsuit also alleges on page 22 that the Boardwalk taskforce, which Christ calls a “shill entity,” was set up as a ruse to create “the appearance of fairness to the court and the public” while the city enacted its’ “illegal plan.”
Ayres shot holes in that allegation, too, citing that during the early public meetings of the taskforce the city met with the lawyers of the two street performers, Mark Chase and Bill Hassay Jr., who sued the city and Judge Ellen Hollander, who ruled on both cases.
“We had a phone conference with the judge, reps from the ACLU [who represented Hassay Jr.] and Mark Chase’s lawyers,” said Ayres. “Neither the ACLU or Chase’s lawyer were opposed to the original registration process. But, the taskforce was always the plan, as we weren’t going to pass the ordinance and then just do nothing if tweaks needed to be made.”
Lottery System Coming?
Numerous tweaks to the town’s street performer law have been made since it was instilled last July, and it appears that further modifications are coming.
“This kind of thing is happening all over the country, not just in Ocean City,” said Ayres. “We just received the transcripts of the Boardwalk Taskforce’s findings and it looks like they are going to be recommending a lottery system like ones used in other cities like Las Vegas.”
City Clerk Diana Chavis believes a lottery system would alleviate the issue of people feeling that they needed to sleep out in front of City Hall once or twice a week.
“With the lottery system, the performers could show up a few minutes before the official draw, put in their names, and get a spot,” she said.
On the popular nightlife destination Fremont Street in Las Vegas, a daily lottery system assigns registered street performers to one of 38 designated spots painted in six-foot circles that look like poker chips on the pavement.
However, Las Vegas’ lotto system has been criticized because it doesn’t make performers use a name during registration for the lotto, and that raises concerns that buskers could try to corner the market by registering multiple times under different accounts to get a better probability of earning one of the coveted spots.
“Our Only Recourse”
Ocean City performers believe the registration system of this past summer drastically thinned out the street performer population, as would a lottery system.
“I saw almost 75 percent fewer performers this summer,” said 82-year-old balloon artist William Campion, Sr. “The registration process is creating vacancies on the Boardwalk because no human can perform all day long and they won’t let anyone else use the spots.”
Chavis argues that the city began allowing two performers to sign up for one spot per day to alleviate concerns like Campion’s.
“I started allowing two performers to be on the same spot in August,” said Chavis. “It seemed to work out fine.”
Campion, who is one of the eight plaintiffs in the case, says street performers have been demoralized and treated inhumanely.
“This [lawsuit] is our only recourse,” he said. “We are defenseless against the city. I’m 82 years old. I like blowing up my balloons and entertaining children, but I’m tired of being kicked around fighting for the right to do so.”
Jim Starck, a puppeteer on the Boardwalk for 40 years, is also one of the plaintiffs.
“We feel harassed, antagonized and taken advantage of,” he said. “No one wants to keep doing a job where they have to endure that every day. It didn’t use to be like this. For decades, the street performers coexisted with everyone on the Boardwalk. Now it seems like everyone hates us. The connotation with street performer has been dirtied here, and that makes me sad. Most of us are artists who love what we do and only make a few bucks doing it. That’s our choice, but we do have a right to perform, and that’s what we are fighting for.”