A recent event for the Hays-Caldwell women’s shelter was held on the lawn of the Hays County Courthouse. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
A month after the Tea Party tax protest controversy, the Hays County Commissioners Court is in the midst of establishing the county’s first property use policy — written guidelines governing the public’s use of the courthouse grounds.
The county required organizers of the local April 15 Tea Party protest to obtain insurance and pay a deposit to use the courthouse grounds, though it had previously exempted organizers of other events, such as the annual Martin Luther King Day event. The MLK Day event begins as a gathering on the courthouse steps and ends after a march through downtown San Marcos.
The Tea Party on April 15 would have been held on the steps of the courthouse, but organizers moved it to the sidewalk because they did not wish to pay the $150 deposit or the $445.87 for special event insurance.
“We have to be more consistent,” said Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley), who attended the Tea Party protest. “Some do insurance, some don’t — and that’s not right. That’s a failure of the county. And we need to make sure that’s changed.”
The county’s policy concerning the public’s use of courthouse grounds has thus far been unwritten, administered by staff working in the Civil Division of the Hays County District Attorney.
“The agreement (MLK Day organizers) signed required insurance,” commissioners’ special council Mark Kennedy Tuesday’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. “Staff had clear instructions on how to treat license agreements, but there was inconsistent application. Under new policy, MLK folks would not have the insurance requirement.”
The draft policy proposed by Kennedy would define three types of events by criteria such as the number of prospective attendees, the nature of electrical equipment used, whether a group would seek exclusive use of space on courthouse grounds and whether penetration of the courthouse lawn (e.g., tent stakes) would occur.
The proposed policy specifies “Class I” events as those entailing more than 200 attendees, the use of complex electrical equipment or the installation of stakes or anchors in the ground. Organizers of Class I events would be required to obtain insurance and pay deposits.
The proposed policy defines a “Class II event” as one that does not exceed 200 attendees and uses existing electricity outlets on courthouse grounds without additional setup or calls for the exclusive use of space on the property. Organizers of class II events would be required to execute a license agreement similar to that already used by the county, but they would not be required to obtain insurance. The County Judge may require organizers of Class II events to pay deposits ranging from $2 to $500.
A third category, called a “general function,” is any activity held on the grounds that doesn’t fit under the Class I or Class II events. That is, they don’t exceed 200 participants, involve piercing the courthouse grounds or require the use of extra electricity. Such events would include picnics, dog walking and picketing. However, the draft policy stipulates that organizers of such events in which 20 to 200 people are expected would be required to notify the county two days in advance.
Said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), “If there’s going to be such a large crowd that it’s going to interfere with routine business, if there might be some conflict between two groups that maybe passionately disagree with one another, if it’s a for-profit venture that really is going to make exclusive use of the courthouse grounds, or if there’s something that might really damage the grounds or the trees, then we need to limit it. But otherwise, 20 people, 30 people, 50 people, 100 people just gathering for a spontaneous candlelight vigil or a spontaneous protest about how lousy they think the county government is — if they just want to exercise their First Amendment rights — again, I think we ought to err on the side of allowing as much assembly as possible and only step in to impose any restrictions when there’s some clear, administrative need.”
Barton and Conley said Kennedy’s proposed policy should be tweaked to increase the attendee threshold so insurance and deposit requirements would not be triggered for events of 200 people. During the commissioners court meeting, Barton indicated 500 people would “clearly” have an effect on the county’s administrative operations.
During an April 21 commissioners court meeting, some members of the court broached the possibility of sponsoring “gray area” events such as the Women Entrepreneurs of Hays County, the Martin Luther King march or Art on the Square. Such groups have not been required to have insurance, though some have signed the license agreement, which requires the licensee to obtain insurance.
“At that point, we wouldn’t really have much of a system for receiving applications — it could be a real slippery slope,” Kennedy said. “I want to help them avoid that. I know that, at the same time, they may feel like they want to sponsor an event from time to time. So, I think we need to try to balance that. I don’t know what it is yet.”
Conley said the county’s new property use policy would best be handled administratively rather than by individual commissioners court members. However, Conley said, occasional intervention by commissioners may be warranted.
“I think we’re heading down the right road,” Conley said. “I just want to make sure that we keep our goals in mind, which are to provide those political and First Amendment protections to people and not make it overbearing for them to use our facilities.”