CITY HALL — The free summer concerts at the Santa Monica Pier are a little less free, at least for taxpayers.
City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to boost the public safety presence, ratchet back the sponsorship options, and spend $200,000 to subsidize the Twilight Concert Series.
They also axed the jumbotron that city officials say contributed to the hard-to-manage beach turnouts last summer.
Council did opt to save the beach speakers, which had been on the chopping block for the same reason the jumbotron will be unplugged.
At last year’s Jimmy Cliff concert, city officials estimate that 20,000 to 30,000 people showed up, with most concert-goers on the beach.
Fire Chief Scott Ferguson and Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks both spoke at the meeting, encouraging council to take measures to downsize the beach presence.
“While there’s a perspective that the Santa Monica crowd is chill and therefore nothing untoward can happen, particularly because nothing of significance has occurred, this is a view that’s rooted less in strategic thinking and action, and more on good fortune,” Seabrooks said.
City officials estimate that an average of 15,000 people attended each concert last year. Only about 20 police officers were on hand for the shows, Seabrooks said, but to ensure safety the number should be closer to 50.
The cost of that kind of police presence, assuming 10 shows, is about $184,000 a year, she said. An additional $70,000 would be needed to cover the fire department’s presence, Ferguson said. That cash would come from City Hall’s General Fund.
In an attempt to cut down on the turnout, council directed the concert organizers to pursue lesser-known acts. Given that there is no way to know how many people might show up for any concert, council also voted to extend public safety officials whatever funds they need to keep the shows safe.
For the past few years, the beach crowd was divided into two sections to create a lane for emergency access. The new framework for the shows creates six beach areas and therefore even more lanes. The concerts will also be moved east, allowing for more emergency exits.
During the public portion of the meeting, 15 people spoke in favor of keeping the concerts as they were in 2013. Two wanted to see the shows downsized.
Former Mayor Judy Abdo, speaking on behalf of the Santa Monica Pier Corp. board, advocated for keeping the jumbotron and the beach speakers. The Jimmy Cliff show was an anomaly, she said.
“We did it really well on the pier,” she said. “Maybe we did it a little too well. I don’t want to make it not a fun event. That’s the push and pull here: How do we make it really safe and really fun at the same time?”
Another former mayor, Michael Feinstein, said restricting the events would be “bad karma” for the city.
Many fans of the concert series spoke of the calm nature of the beach parties and of the money they spent at local restaurants and bars after the show.
Residents pointed out that the concerts could double in size, regardless of City Hall’s actions, due to the incoming Expo Light Rail, which will drop riders right by the pier.
Council wrestled with this notion as well and nearly all of them expressed a desire to beef up police and fire, just in case.
“Large numbers of people, 99.9 percent are good people,” said Councilmember Bob Holbrook. “But there’s that 1 percent that gets drunk, or is on drugs, or goes nuts, and we have to prepare ourselves to deal with that problem that may occur and so my concerns are public safety.”
Aside from public safety, one of the chief concerns coming out of City Hall is the sponsorship program. Santa Monica’s municipal code heavily restricts advertising in public spaces. The previous sponsorship programs, which included ads on the jumbotron and on beach flags for corporations like Myspace, were essentially violating the code, officials said.
The newly-passed framework greatly restricts sponsorship options, bringing them in line with the code.
Sponsors based their ad rates on the number of estimated attendees. Between the possible downsized attendance and the sponsorship restrictions, ad dollars — which hit $450,000 last year — would likely be cut in half, pier officials said.
Council asked city officials to study the sign ordinance and return with some proposed amendments that could relax the municipal code for the pier concerts.