Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson

“Mass Gatherings.” Somehow the sound of that seems a wee bit ominous and unsettling, as when we suddenly started to refer to our country as “The Homeland.” Not “public gatherings,” but “mass gatherings.” Whatever the difference is, apparently such gatherings are now enough of a concern to the city of Bath that a new public ordinance needs to be adopted.

News of this came at the last city council meeting by way of a unanimous first passage after the very brief and vague summary of the ordinance’s purpose and a decision to forego any actual reading of its specific ins and outs. It had been proposed and worked out behind the closed doors of a council workshop and was in the best interests of those the council members represent, having something to do with public safety and establishing a flexible guide for dealing with whatever public endangerment might need to be addressed. A mentioned concerned party that prompted the staff recommendation to establish such an ordinance was left unnamed.

One council member voiced that a public reading of the ordinance should be made so citizens would know what was being voted on. The chairperson suggested that, due to the length of the ordinance, the tediousness of such a reading should be left up to those truly interested. Copies would be made available online and through the city clerk’s office. With that seconded, and without any real further discussion, the ordinance was on its way to a second passage hearing this Wednesday April 6 at 6 p.m.

Like many who don’t regularly attend council meetings, I learned of their decision in the paper and then by a local public access airing. I also heard of it through social media buzzing with concerns of possible negative impact on everything from block parties to weddings. Foremost among concerns was an immediate red flag raised by those worried that their civil liberties would be trampled.

The general dissatisfaction is chiefly about what exactly constitutes a mass gathering and how is a determination to be made as to what gatherings should be required to pay a $100 fee and provide $1 million in liability insurance coverage.

I’d never heard of the term so I looked it up. Turns out a mass gathering is a planned event expecting to attract enough people to sufficiently strain the planning and response resources of the municipality where it’s being held. That definition varies according to size of the municipality and its resources, but is generally described as a very large gathering of hundreds or thousands of people.

Bath’s definition of a mass gathering is the assembly of a mere 50 people. That is more than somewhat perplexing in itself. Additionally perplexing is Bath’s standard that mass gatherings are those planning a 6 hour duration or longer. Still more baffling is that Heritage Days, which is an annual event that way exceeds both thresholds, is expressly not subject to the ordinance. Other events that readily come to mind meet the 50 plus headcount but fail the 6 hour time frame.

After passing a similar law, Augusta was taken to court. At first the statute was ruled unconstitutional, but that decision was later reversed on appeal and statute modification.

Similar fears of constitutional trespass here in Bath have prompted several shots across the bow, triggering clarification from the city solicitor to the council members in a letter as legalese laden as the proposed ordinance.

The hurried nature of a first passage held without sufficient transparency still has some anxious over the motivation behind all this. The city solicitor’s written response to that anxiety addresses Augusta’s previous legal challenge and anticipates passing legal muster in regards to arbitrariness inequity, indigence issues, and civil liberties.

Bath’s city council is now on notice regarding constitutional worries. Those, and any and all other concerns should be put to them at second passage next week. Someone should then explain why this is suddenly necessary, whom initiated its drafting and what scenarios are actually anticipated for its need.

Other town governments debate issues at length in full view of their constituents. Bath always seems to be holding its cards close to the vest, preferring to discuss matters away from public view. As with the most recent BIW TIF affair, or the controversial sale of the old hospital, such behavior is occasionally misinterpreted as being the workings of a nefarious cabal rather than simply very good and true people doing the best they can.

Overall, The City of Ships sails along pretty well without a great deal of municipal turmoil.

Whatever convincing need is demonstrated, this ordinance, being so flexibly and discriminatingly proposed, provides no absolute assurance that constitutional rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly will not be infringed.

Unchanged, the ordinance may well be held constitutional. Citizens United is also legally upheld. Yet only a little while ago, Bath’s City Council unanimously passed a well-argued well-considered resolution recommending overturning that Supreme Court decision by amending the Constitution.

This ordinance’s time for any necessary amendment is still at hand.

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Gary Anderson lives in Bath.


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