COMMENTARY by BRAD ROLLINS
By now, I hope it is clear to my friends on the San Marcos City Council that a ban on display and consumption of alcohol in city parks is bad policy and worse politics.
Word is that the city attorney has been drafting an alternative version that would ban the display of alcohol — but not the consumption of it — in the city’s 1,800 acres of parks and natural areas.
This is a step in the right direction but may be too little, too late for many of the people who have awaken to the very rude news of a forthcoming alcohol ban. Had the council not let its staff rope it into giving preliminary approval last week to the most extreme proposal on the table — a total ban of all alcohol in all parks — the council likely could have avoided the public outrage that has been percolating for nearly two weeks now.
At one point in their March 20 meeting, council member Shane Scott, with a second by Ryan Thomason, moved to strip the consumption ban while leaving the display ban in place. The idea seems to be that if you discourage the exhibition of alcohol, by requiring it to be poured into a red Solo cup or other descrete container, you can still allow the non-troublemakers to responsibly enjoy alcohol. Scott withdrew the motion after City Marshal Ken Bell said it would make prosecution more difficult in court.
Another way that city staff has steered the council away from finding reasonable middle ground is by arguing against designating an alcohol-free zone where families with children who don’t want to be around drinking can go to enjoy the parks system. This is something that Thomason first suggested when the council discussed the ban on March 6. The rest of the parks would be left alone — no display ban, no consumption ban.
Both Bell and parks director Rodney Cobb say that would replicate existing problems. Both Childrens’ Park and the athletic fields at Ramon Lucio Park are already alcohol-free. But since the river parks all run contiguously along the San Marcos River, often with no obvious boundary between one park and the next, people don’t know where alcohol is allowed and where it isn’t. There is little to no signage to note when you’re in an alcohol-free park.
But what if the existing alcohol free area around Children’s Park was enlarged to include Bicentennial Park and Veramendi Plaza? That would create a large contiguous block of family friendly territory that includes one of the most beautiful urban stretches of the river.
I’m calling this the Derrick-Schwartz plan because it came out of a discussion between two blogging regulars on the San Marcos Mercury, Melissa Derrick and Cori Schwartz.
Derrick asked, Why not accommodate families by marking off an easy-to-describe area as a family friendly zone — no alcohol and no tobacco?
Schwartz replied, “I think you’ve hit on a great possible compromise regarding alcohol — keeping a long stretch of the river alcohol free, so that we don’t have the confusing patchwork of rules that was a problem previously. It was very confusing.”
This got to me looking at the maps, and it’s true. If you make those three parks alcohol/tobacco-free — Children’s, Bicentennial and Veramemdi — it creates a solid area from Hopkins Street down to the last railroad trestle. That is an easy-to-describe area that will soon become collective knowledge of all river-going locals. It is easy to communicate to visitors with visible, attractive signage at the alcohol-free zone and at City Park where many tubers start their float.
Even better, the city has already built an iron and stone fence along the railroad track separating Children’s Park from Rio Vista Park. I took a picture of it here. Far from a poorly defined patchwork of different alcohol rules, Hopkins Street and that railroad track/fence, create unmistakable demarcations.
I’ve made clear my distaste for this knee-jerk impulse to pass far-reaching, social-engineering legislation – to pay only glancing notice of personal freedoms and property rights — without a probing dialogue about the problems we are trying to solve and how much we’re willing to give up toward that end.
I also understand that no council member wants to sit on their hands when their staff and residents come to them and say: This is a problem we need your help on.
Adoption of the Derrick-Schwartz plan — while leaving the alcohol rules unchanged in all other parks — is a thoughtful, decisive way of addressing misbehavior in the parks and giving law enforcement the tools they need to make it work.
Let’s increase littering fines, prohibit Styrofoam and create a significantly sized alcohol-free zone while leaving alcohol rules unchanged elsewhere in the parks system.
I think this will address the problems noted by Bell, Cobb and the parks and recreation board and give this council some breathing room to focus on the significant economic and development challenges we face.Email | Print