OCEAN CITY — While the Ocean City Mayor and Council await formal recommendations from the Boardwalk Task Force on proposed tweaks to the contentious street performer ordinance, the town’s elected officials this week continued to get an earful from disgruntled buskers over the proposed changes.
The latest salvos in the ongoing street performer ordinance were fired by buskers during the public comment period of Monday’s regular Mayor and Council session. While the ordinance was neither on the agenda nor discussed at all by the council, several street performers took the public comment opportunity to continue to hammer home their views.
Last month, the Boardwalk Task Force, created earlier this year to explore the issues related to street performers, met to address some of the comments received during an October public hearing and to make new recommendations for proposed changes. From the beginning, the street performers have protested the perceptively flawed sign-up system.
Through much of the summer and early fall, 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 and lined up for a chance to get one of the designated first come, first served locations.
After the several complaints were heard during the public hearing in October, the Boardwalk Task Force last month agreed to forward a recommendation to the Mayor and Council for a single registration day each Monday with a rotating system for buskers. In addition, the task force agreed the larger 10-foot by 10-foot spaces would be doled out on a first-come, first-served lottery, followed by the rest of the spaces in a separate lottery.
The task force is formalizing new recommendations and is expected to forward the proposed changes to the Mayor and Council shortly, but while the elected officials have not yet seen a formal presentation from the task force, a handful of street performers took the opportunity presented by Monday’s public comment period to already voice their displeasure with the proposed changes.
“It is obvious street performers hate the sign-up system,” said street performer William Campion, reading from a letter from busker Mike Moeller. “My belief is that a lottery system will only create more outrage. While on the surface a lottery appears more fair, it would give a definite advantage to the pool of costume characters. Foreign students working as costume characters are able to work together to lock down big blocks of spaces.”
Campion said the proposed lottery was akin to a random coin toss, although a coin toss does not always guarantee equality.
“A coin toss should give an equal chance of heads or tails, but heads can come up several times in a row,” he said. “A first-come, first-served system is flawed and a lottery system could be worse. A lottery system is bad, bad, bad and will only ensure there are fewer performers.”
Street performer Ahlee Dawson said she works full time, does not live in the area and only performs in Ocean City when her schedule allows. Dawson said the proposed changes including a lottery of sorts put her at a disadvantage in terms of ensuring a spot on the Boardwalk.
“I’m not a performer 24 hours a day and seven days a week,” she said. “What about the part-time performers? I could not sign up two times a week with work and with living out of town. My ability to perform is based on my ability to sign up. It’s not right and it’s not fair. It favors certain people and that’s not the way freedom of expression works.”
During the litany of public comments against the proposed changes to the street performer ordinance, Greg DeMarco took the opportunity to address the performers’ de facto leader Tony Christ, who has led a civil suit against the town and several of its unnamed shop keepers over the street performer ordinance. DeMarco levied several general complaints against the resident curmudgeon.
“Tony Christ has been a disruptive and at times out of control nuisance to those of us who value good government,” he said. “He claims his goal is fiscal responsibility, but don’t be fooled by what he says. His only goal is to smear the Mayor, Council President Martin and Councilmembers Cymek, Dare and Knight. Tony has furnished us with countless examples of his lies and dishonesty.”
For his part, Christ appeared to take DeMarco’s attack in stride and directed the conversation back to the busker issues. He pointed out he became involved in the street performer battle when he received the one and only citation issued to a busker on the Boardwalk this summer.
“I’m here due to the fortune or misfortune of having Mr. Ayres tell the police officers to give me the only ticket on the Boardwalk,” he said.
Christ said he represents the majority of the buskers that actually perform on the Boardwalk and pointed out the differences.
“There’s a distinction between the performers and those who don’t perform,” he said. “Performers perform. Others up there who dress in Halloween costumes do not perform. The only group I’m speaking for are those who actually perform.”
Christ said the many of the street performers are often characterized by less than stellar perceptions.
“Not a one of them that I’ve met is on food stamps or other assistance,” he said. “Of course, if the regulations continue, I think the council is dead set on putting them on government programs. They are proud, two in the front row are veterans, and the fact is, there is probably a total of 25 performers and they just aren’t used to having government regulate them or tell them what to do.”
Christ said the sign-up system in place last summer was grossly unfair.
“This summer was a forced meritocracy,” he said. “In other words, you had to pay the price. If you paid the toll keeper, you could get a place on the Boardwalk.”
The vast and varied comments were not made in the context of any council discussion about the street performer ordinance. The council is still waiting for new recommendations from the task force and there will be ample time for debate when that happens. In the meantime, Council President Lloyd Martin delivered a calming message during what had become a chippy public comment period.
“You are being heard and the council is very open to your concerns,” he said. “We’re trying to be fair, but you have to give us some more time. Things are moving in the right direction and we’re trying to figure out what everybody wants and what everybody needs. We have to be fair to our business owners and we have to be fair to our performers.”
Martin said it was unfair to suggest the council was motivated by anything more than simply finding an amenable solution for all involved and dismissed the notion the ordinance was structured in such a way to make the street performers ultimately go away.
“I don’t think anybody here discounts any Boardwalk performers,” he said. “It’s been said up here from the council the performers add something to the Boardwalk and give the Boardwalk character. Some are better than others and we all know that. We just need time to get this right and do what’s best for everybody and that’s where we are right now.”