OUR VIEW: What's in a name?
No one showed up at a recent public hearing to debate a proposed county “assembly” ordinance, leaving Carlton County commissioners to believe the debate would be entirely among themselves.
But since news reports following that meeting — as well as news on the street — began to spread, residents have started to speak up about the ordinance in no uncertain terms.
The ordinance would require a permit fee of up to $500 for events staged on private land in all but one of the county’s townships, when 300 or more people are expected to attend.
You could excuse the County Board for thinking the rest of the county was content to leave the matter in their hands. After all, the state of Minnesota long ago gave its sanction to cities and counties around the state to regulate certain events in the name of public safety. The city of Cloquet and many other cities have had similar ordinances on the books for quite some time. Aitkin County, on whose ordinance the Carlton County ordinance is loosely based, has had its ordinance in place for some 20 years.
Why, then, have many of the residents of the county suddenly raised their voices in outraged protest?
The arguments they make, in most cases, are reasonable ones — the constitutional right of every American to public assembly, the seeming inconsistencies in who or what should be regulated, the board’s discretionary right to overrule it as they see fit, the cost of the permits, and, arguably, any real proof that such events have caused disturbances in the past.
Let’s take those arguments in reverse order:
Reportedly, complaints to commissioners about just such events were what triggered the Board to start examining the possibility of an ordinance in the first place.
The cost of the permits, the alleged inconsistencies and discretionary powers of the Board can (and should be) discussed and fine-tuned to make them as fair and understandable as possible for all concerned.
That leaves the challenge to the public’s constitutional right to assemble — and that’s a biggie. But commissioners, department heads and the sheriff all contend that’s not what this ordinance is all about. The overriding purpose is not to regulate the people’s freedom of speech, or filter what’s being said at such events. Instead, it’s to make sure that certain ground rules are observed so those hosting large events on private property demonstrate a regard for the public’s safety and welfare — both for those attending as well as those who live in the surrounding neighborhood — whatever it is they are planning to do.
County commissioners acknowledged early on that it was probably inadvisable to use the term “assembly” in the name of the ordinance because it can so easily be misconstrued. They discussed substituting some other name such as “gathering” or “event.” But alas, it was already too late, and the floodgates were opened to all sorts of interpretations that made the public’s blood boil.
The good news is that no decisions have yet been made regarding the proposed ordinance. It’s time for commissioners — and the rest of the residents of the county — to take a deep breath and go back to take a good, hard look at the body of the ordinance itself to see what needs to be changed before deciding to either pass it or merely throw it out.
Forget about the semantics and address the real issues at hand. Then, and only then, can the county make an educated decision on how to act, taking the interests of everyone concerned to heart.