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Spencer Downtown Event Coalition Preps For Nov. 4 Meeting

SDEC flyer

Residents hold Spencer Downtown Event Coalition flyers during the Sept. 9 meeting of the Owen County Commissioners (Mitch Legan, WTIU/WFIU News)

The Spencer Downtown Event Coalition met Monday night to discuss its plan for next week’s Owen County Commissioners meeting.

More than 45 people attended the meeting, which had to be moved to the main auditorium of the Tivoli Theatre to accommodate everyone who was interested.

The Coalition called a meeting after the Owen County Commissioners introduced a controversial new ordinance last week that could make it more difficult to hold events on county grounds.

Controversy arose about the ordinance changes after form letters surfaced describing the Spencer Pride Fest as inappropriate for children. The Owen County Commissioners had originally tried to pass them off as a petition from taxpayers complaining about festival costs.

Special events and festivals are crucial to the economies of both Owen County and the town of Spencer, so many residents were concerned with the possible ordinance changes.

In the midst of the controversy, Spencer Pride President Jonathan Balash formed the Spencer Downtown Event Coalition along with stakeholders from around Spencer and Owen County.

According to its Facebook page, the SDEC is a group of “like-minded citizens who care deeply about the importance of keeping events thriving in downtown Spencer, Indiana.” It has been working to save festivals and special events in the county since early September.

Now that the commissioners have officially introduced the new ordinance, the SDEC has been combing through it line-by-line to determine where it can be improved; the group called a meeting Monday night to share its findings with the public.

“We have a lot of engagement on social media,” says Jonathan Balash, spokesperson for the Spencer Downtown Event Coalition. “But we wanted an opportunity to get on the same page about what the special events ordinance is actually proposing.”

Balash said the SDEC had two different lawyers look at the proposed ordinance, and they both agreed – the way it is written now makes it ripe for litigation.

“They’ve been surprisingly very consistent in their assessments,” Balash says. “In that this is overly broad, that it’s discriminatory and specifically, that it lacks substantial due process.”

Bullet e. of Section Two of the ordinance defines a special event as “any organized gathering of people for any purpose for a limited period of time which is sponsored by a for-profit or non-profit individual, group, organization, or entity and at which any one of the following shall apply:”

One of the following conditions, e.3., says something could be considered a special event if it is “expected to have a visual, noise or other environmental impact upon the immediate vicinity or surrounding area of the event.”

Balash says he has been advised that under the current wording of the proposed ordinance, someone’s garage sale or pool party could be considered a special event, and would therefore be subject to the approval of the county commissioners.

Fees were another sticking point during the meeting, as Balash and fellow SDEC leader Janet Rummel compared Owen County’s to others in Indiana.

Under the proposed ordinance, someone hoping to hold a festival on county grounds would have to pay a non-refundable application fee of $200. That’s eight times higher than the median festival application fee around the state, which Rummel says comes out to $25.

Balash says the previous cost of the Spencer Pride Festival was $0, because the commissioners never collected the fees to begin with. Under the new ordinance, it would cost over $2,000.

"The commissioners were completely not aware of what the current ordinance says, so that’s the problem here,” Balash says. “There’s a much simpler ordinance in place right now that the commissioners have failed to manage appropriately as our elected officials – and their solution to that was to create a much more complicated version that somehow they’re going to be able to manage easier.”

Balash says the SDEC also wanted to provide a forum where people could share their thoughts on the ordinance, since Owen County Commissioners President Jeff Brothers declined to allow public comment at last week’s commissioners meeting. Instead, Brothers set aside time during the next Commissioners meeting, which is at 9 a.m. on Nov. 4.

“All along the commissioners have unfortunately not made it easy for the public to engage and participate,” Balash says. “Whether it’s being in a room that’s way too small for the public that’s coming out, not having equipment that works or a general sense of apathy toward those who are coming out and taking time off work, or coming to these night meetings where they could be doing anything else.”

Those in attendance determined that the best plan of action moving forward is to present to the commissioners how the proposed ordinance would specifically affect each festival, organization or business so they can see the real effects it would have.  

“This ordinance literally kicks Santa out of the courthouse,” Balash says, referring to Spencer Main Street’s annual “Christmas at the Square” event. “I feel like Commissioner Brothers needs to hear: You are kicking Santa out of the courthouse.”

The Owen County Commissioners will meet next Monday, Nov. 4 at 9 a.m. in the Emergency Management Agency conference room at 129 S. Washington Street in Spencer.  

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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