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New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio's policy requiring groups planning any "special event, parade, or any other activity" to pay upfront the cost of estimated city services makes sense, but it has run up against some practical problems. It is reasonable that the crash-strapped city, once again confronting a budget deficit, requires organizers of parades and festivals to pay for any additional expenses such as police protection and cleanup by Public Works crews.
But the mandate, contained in Executive Order 6 issued by Mayor Finizio last May, contains no definitions as to what constitutes a "special event, parade, or any other activity." It leaves it to the administration to issue a "full cost accounting for the event's fiscal impact on City services," without setting parameters as to what expenses should be included.
The group that has traditionally presented the Irish Parade in the city on St. Patrick's Day felt the assessed fee was too high. When the organization and administration could not agree, the group said it would take its parade elsewhere (we're still awaiting word) and a new organization stepped in to run the parade.
The latest controversy involved the traditional march on the holiday that honors Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Marchers once again walked from City Hall to the Shiloh Baptist Church for the service there. Organizers do not feel the permit and fee requirement should include the march. We agree. This is not a parade or festival. It recreates in spirit the 1960s' protest marches that were held in support of civil rights and the ending of segregation laws, often at great peril to those who participated. Its roots are political, civil and moral, and we see it as a far different event than a street festival or ethnically rooted parade.
Mayor Finizio, however, felt his executive order did cover it. Faced with the prospect of trying to stop the march to honor Rev. King for its lack of a permit (Can you imagine the publicity that would have generated for the city?), the mayor decided to pay the costs.
While meritorious at one level, his action was problematic at another. Going forward which groups will be deserving of the mayor's largesse? And technically speaking, the executive order was not met. The "event coordinators" are required to pay, not a third party. And Mayor Finizio didn't pay in advance, he still awaits an invoice from his own city, anticipating a charge between $800 and $1,000.
Mayor Finizio's charity did not appease march organizers. From the pulpit, Bishop Benjamin K. Watts said, "It was an insult to ask us for a fee."
What about protest marches? If people wanted to march in New London in support or opposed to gun legislation, would these groups be first required to get permits and pay estimated expenses? If protestors stick to sidewalks, probably not, but if they take to the streets, maybe, said the mayor. This raises free-speech issues.
Mayor Finizio has suggested adding a line item in the budget to pay for commemorative events such as the MLK march. But that process would be highly subjective, leaving the mayor or council to judge which functions were worthy of taxpayer funding.
The better solution, we feel, would be to enact an ordinance. The mayor expressed concern it would intrude on his executive authority to handle permits. We don't see the conflict. The mayor would still issue the permits.
An ordinance could detail what types of events require the permit fee and which do not. It could codify in law what expenses the city can fairly pass along to event organizers. And the process of enacting an ordinance would allow the public and groups that hold events in the city to offer their opinions and perspectives.
It might even save the mayor a few bucks.