Sunday, December 11, 2011

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: Unequal Application of the Law?

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Dec. 11, 2011

Santa Fe Republicans indisputably are in the minority. This often leads to grumbling about their treatment by the Democratic majority. Like all political beefs, from any side, sometimes the concerns are overblown. Sometimes not. 

Occupy Santa Fe at Railyard
Photo by Luis Sanchez Saturno/The New Mexican
Last week a couple of local GOP activists raised a valid question about basic fairness. Jim and Sheryl Bohlander emailed that they don't think it's fair that they had to pay hundreds of dollars to use the Santa Fe Plaza for tea-party events while members of the Occupy Santa Fe movement camp out at the city's Railyard Park for free. 

"As two of the principal organizers of the 2009 and 2010 tea-party rallies on the Plaza, we can confirm that we had to secure a permit to use the Plaza, $400 for each event, plus we had to secure at liability insurance policy for both events, well over $300 each time," the Bohlanders said in their email. "The permit fee for 2011 was $455. Additionally, we had to state specifically the time frame of the events." 

I realize some readers will be thinking, "What the heck? They're Republicans. They can afford it." 

But setting political prejudices aside — if that's ever possible — one can ask if it's fair to make one group of citizens pay to use a city park for a political gathering while another group gets to use a park for free? 

Location, location, location: I asked that very question of Mayor David Coss last week. The mayor, a Democrat who presides over our nominally nonpartisan municipal governing body, said the main reason is because of where the tea-party rallies took place, as opposed to where the occupiers are occupying. 

"They're at a distant corner of the Railyard Park," Coss said. "They're not really affecting anybody." 

On the other hand, the mayor pointed out, the tea-party events took place on the Plaza, "which is the center for commerce in downtown Santa Fe." 
Santa Fe Tea Party
Tea Party on SF Plaza, 4-15-10

Coss also said he didn't waive any fees for anyone camping out at the Railyard Park because there is no fee schedule in place for that. 

The occupy group is engaging in civil disobedience, Coss asserted — civil disobedience "sort of." Can it really be called disobedience when the participants aren't seeking arrest or confrontation with the law? They have negotiated with city officials, including police. All sides have said there is a good rapport. But Coss said he's made it clear that if there is damage to the park or other problems, he will want the city to remove the protesters. He said he and other city officials are monitoring the situation. 

And so far, so good. There haven't been any more incidents at the Railyard Park since the occupy movement began their stay than were reported before, Coss said. The incidents reported haven't been serious, the mayor said — encounters with drunks, panhandling and such. 

Coss said he's proud that Santa Fe has been able to avoid the kind of violent confrontations between protesters and police seen in other cities. 

Unequal application: When told about the mayor's response, Jim Bohlander wasn't satisfied. "A public park is a public park," he said. "This is an unequal application of the law." 

He pointed out that the city's website specifies fees for using parks starting at $60 a day on weekdays and $95 a day on weekends for most parks for groups of 20 or more. (The Plaza, Cathedral Park and events involving more than 100 people are more expensive.) 

Another difference, Bohlander said, is that the tea-party events were limited to a few hours, while the occupy encampment has lasted more than a month. "I'm not saying there's a conspiracy or anything," Bohlander said. "It just seems to be hypocritical." 

Coss said that as far as he's concerned, in the absence of serious problems, Occupy Santa Fe can stay in the park. At least until next spring when gay pride events are scheduled for Railyard Park. 

"I bet they will have to pay for a permit, too," Bohlander said.