Protest to go ahead without permit
By STEPHANIE M. PETERS STAFF WRITER | April 11,2009
Vyto Starinskas / Rutland Herald
Jon Wallace shows one of several flags that will be displayed at next Wednesday’s tax rally in Main Street Park.
West Rutland resident Jon Wallace is moving ahead with plans for Wednesday's Tax Day Tea Party in Main Street Park, despite being denied a special event permit by the Board of Aldermen this week.
When it comes down to it, he said, he's been told he doesn't really need the permit. And he doesn't see how the aldermen think they could deny protestors' First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly anyway, he said.
"My gut feeling was that 'thou doth protest too much,'" Wallace said of the board's decision to deny the permit. Wallace was not at Monday night's aldermen meeting — a sticking point for several members of the board irritated both by the short notice of the request and the fact they couldn't get answers to some lingering questions.
"What are they afraid of?" he said Friday. "If your ear is to the ground and you're listening to people and you're trying to do the people's work, my God you're going to be standing there with us embracing us."
Wallace is the Vermont state coordinator for a grassroots effort to hold a coordinated, national tea party protest. According to the Tax Day Tea Party Web site, more than 600 cities will play host to similar rallies, including Montpelier.
The rallies aren't meant to be divisive or partisan, in fact Wallace describes them as "genteel." That said, he wanted to dot his i's and cross his t's by getting a permit even though the event doesn't feature vendors, require streets to be blocked off or require a police detail.
So he obtained the necessary sign-offs from the Parks and Recreation Department, city police, city fire and the city attorney, as well as liability insurance. Thus he was shocked when he heard his request had been denied.
Alderman William Notte was the first to raise concerns about the event during Monday's meeting. He voted against it, and followed up his decision by writing an e-mail to the group explaining his rationale and noting this doesn't mean the event couldn't go on — a question addressed by City Attorney Andrew Costello during the meeting.
"All we did, in my opinion, by not giving them a special event permit was not give them the city's official approval, which would limit our liability if something went wrong," Notte said.
Police Lt. Kevin Geno also seconded Costello's opinion that when held Wednesday, the rally will not be in violation of the law.
"They were just being cautious and doing the right thing really just to let the city fathers know what was going on," Geno said. "They can still hold it."
If the permit request had been turned in even two weeks sooner — and the permit form does state it should be submitted at least 30 days prior to the proposed event — Notte said he believes it would have been approved without a hitch.
"This is a good example of why anyone coming (to the aldermen with a request) for the first time would be well served to send a representative to the meeting," he said.
While it may be a good idea, it's not a written requirement. Yet Notte wasn't the only alderman to express his displeasure that someone from the group — which it was also noted the board is unfamiliar with — wasn't in attendance.
Wallace didn't know it was expected of him, he said when reached after the meeting Monday night. In fact, he didn't even realize the permit was subject to the board's final OK. He thought he'd already received it.
That confusion could open the city up for accusations of discrimination, according to Allen Gilbert, ACLU of Vermont's executive director.
"It's a problem if the regulation doesn't make clear what their requirements are," Gilbert said. "That sort of vagueness can easily lead to discriminatory treatment and a public body wants to avoid that when it comes to granting permission or withholding permission for using a public space."
David Allaire, president of the Board of Aldermen, said a discussion about tweaking the permit requirements is already under way.
"I think it's a good idea to look at the permit and see if there are some additional requirements that we want to put in place, and also look and see if this is something we want to actually have in an ordinance to give it some basis of law other than just a policy," Allaire said Friday.
He said he wasn't aware before the start of the meeting that any of his board members were planning to take issue with the request. If he had, "maybe we would have been able to contact (Wallace)… (The permit procedures) are not common public knowledge."