Before Hitchcock city commissioners discuss the proposed “mass gathering” ordinance, they ought to ask one question: Why does Hitchcock need it?
Usually, laws are proposed as a way of dealing with problems.
What, exactly, is the problem in this case?
The city officials who started this discussions have pointed out that other cities have such ordinances. But Hitchcock isn’t exactly overrun with mass gatherings. It seems to have gotten along without one. It’s not clear why the city needs an ordinance now.
City officials said they brought up an old ordinance, passed in Santa Fe in 1981, as a basis for discussion. The language of the sample would require any event that attracts at least 300 people to apply for a permit that could cost as much as $10,000.
That certainly got the discussion going. People who put on traditional festivals and church suppers expressed concern.
Proponents of an ordinance said those kinds of events are not what they had in mind, which raises the question again of what they do have in mind — what problem, specifically, are they trying to address?
Even if you took out every provision in the sample and started over you can see the problem with these kinds of ordinances just by looking at that $10,000 fee.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to assembly to all citizens, not just to those who can afford a fee.
And even if worthy causes and good events are exempted from the rules and the fees, someone will have to decide which causes are worthy and which events are good.
There already are concerns about favoritism.
Commissioner Lee Sander suggested the ordinance was not so much about mass gatherings but about mass gatherings involving minorities.
Even organizers of Hitchcock’s signature event — Good Ole Days — expressed concerns about fair treatment under the proposed ordinance. If the Good Ole Days festival isn’t safe under this ordinance, what is?
Somewhere behind the push for this ordinance are some folks who are concerned about a real problem.
Perhaps the underlying problem is that the Hitchcock Police Department bears too much of the burden of patrolling state Highway 6 for drunken drivers during the annual Galveston County Fair and Rodeo. Perhaps the department — or the city — is bearing too much of the burden of providing that service.
If that’s underlying problem, Hitchcock commissioners should address it. If something else is the underlying problem, city commissioners should address that.
That’d be a real solution to a real problem.
The “mass gathering” ordinance, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to be a solution to any specific thing. Perhaps because of that, an awful lot of people see it as an open invitation to mischief.
Heber Taylor is editor of The daily News.