CITY HALL — A new city law working its way through the system will require events that attract more than 75 people on the Third Street Promenade to have a special permit, a move that may have implications on nonprofit work on the public street.
A four-member City Council passed the ordinance Tuesday on a staff recommendation citing the tight space available on the promenade and the large crowds it already attracts.
The new procedure will streamline permitting processes for groups interested in putting on events by giving them one application to fill out through the city at the 75-person threshold, said Debbie Lee, vice president of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.
Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. is the public-private organization that runs Downtown for City Hall. Previously, its team dealt with all event requests that claimed 150 people or less, while City Hall would take on events with over 150 people.
“This is more streamlined. There’s only one application from the city from now on,” Lee said. “All permitting for events will be done through the city, although we will still walk people through the process and work with the city’s event team.”
While that might sound good for a company or organization that plans to do a promotion on the busy public walkway, activists who provide meals to the homeless worry that the new rule will squelch their efforts.
Food Not Bombs UCLA and UCLA Campus Crusades were flagged as organizations that participate in feedings on the Third Street Promenade by Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. officials in late 2011.
Those feedings could fall into the category of an “event” if their offerings attract more than 75 homeless people, wrote City Attorney Marsha Moutrie in an e-mail.
Feedings have fluid attendance, which could make it difficult for those volunteering their time and food to come up with an accurate accounting of how many people will show up.
If that number exceeds 75 under the new ordinance, the feeding could be shut down, Moutrie wrote.
“It has been pointed out that event producers may have an incentive to underestimate,” Moutrie wrote, referring to event producers in general, not food events specifically.
“On the other hand, if they do not seek a permit because they estimate that less than 150 (or 75 on the promenade) will attend and then a very large crowd shows up, the city could shut down the event,” she wrote.
Keith McHenry is the co-founder of Food Not Bombs, a loosely-knit group with participants all over the country that provide free food to the needy.
He views the Santa Monica ordinance as one of several being created in cities around the nation to restrict feedings on public property.
Restrictions have begun popping up all over the country, including one in Florida and one currently under consideration in Philadelphia.
“Just this idea that people trying to do something nice for people like provide food can be a regulated concept is starting to encroach on all areas of society,” McHenry said. “What used to be a form of compassion is now a legal issue.”
It’s not just the fact that the ordinance will make it more difficult to feed the homeless, it also prevents groups like Food Not Bombs from spreading their message through literature, signage and a physical presence.
That makes it a free speech issue, McHenry said.
This isn’t the first time that Food Not Bombs has disagreed with City Hall on its events policy. The group in conjunction with other organizations sued City Hall in 2003 over a community events law, claiming that the system for allocating space violated their First Amendment rights.
The main problem remains that many Americans are going hungry, and local governments are standing in the way of those that want to help, McHenry said.
“People who want to help others for free should be able to do so,” he said. “Helping others should be an unregulated activity.”