HYATTSVILLE — After recent events around the county, Hyattsville Mayor Candace Hollingsworth wanted to make sure the city had policies in place to deal with massive public demonstrations. Currently, the Hyattsville city government does not have a streamlined way to receive or review requests to hold public meetings or demonstrations within city limits. That is […]
HYATTSVILLE — After recent events around the county, Hyattsville Mayor Candace Hollingsworth wanted to make sure the city had policies in place to deal with massive public demonstrations.
Currently, the Hyattsville city government does not have a streamlined way to receive or review requests to hold public meetings or demonstrations within city limits. That is something the mayor hopes to change in the coming weeks with a possible new city ordinance she discussed on Jan. 22.
“(This) is written to adopt an ordinance that sets the parameters for people to receive permits for public demonstrations and meetings,” she said.
Hollingsworth, in her pitch to the council, noted several large demonstrations around the county that had gathered national media attention and the way those cities had handled the events. In examining how Hyattsville would handle such an event, she said she was surprised to find the town did not have any policy or procedures, exclusively, on how to permit public demonstrations.
“I was actually surprised that we didn’t have a permit process necessarily or exclusively written in (the city) code to address it,” Hollingsworth said.
Hollingsworth brought up the possible new city ordinance as a discussion item during the Jan. 22 city council meeting and asked for the council to consider passing a motion that would allow the city attorney to draft a new policy with help from staff.
The new legislation would lay out the steps that would need to be taken if anyone wanted to hold a rally, demonstration or otherwise large public meeting in the city. Specifically, it would detail the process for application of a permit, the notification process for any approved permit, how to possibly appeal any denial of a permit, and the city’s standards for approval. These permits would be needed to hold any such event on city-owned property or public rights of way.
“After conversations with the staff, I was thinking that this would be instead of specifying what the procedures would be in the ordinance, rather having the ordinance say residents or members of the public can request permits….And that those permits are issued according to a policy that staff develops,” the Mayor said.
The council could also officially adopt administrative policies on the criteria for approval of such permits.
Councilman Thomas Wright’s first question was if the city had encountered any recent issues that led to necessity of the new ordinance, to which Hollingsworth replied that nothing had occurred in the city, but that she wants not only the city to be prepared, but also wants any policies to be “clear and transparent to the public.”
In addition, Wright noted the language of the proposal does not define what a public meeting is, and said he would like to make the intent more clear.
“I think it would behoove us to try to define maybe that a little bit so that it does separate that. That’s just my advice,” he said.
Councilman Joseph Solomon wanted to know if any permitting process would give the city power to stop certain demonstrations and if the city was wading into legislating First Amendment rights.
“I do have some concern about the city stepping in and determining which types of demonstrations are necessary, permissible, or not. But I also understand the concern about recent national actions where this may be necessary,” he said.
Wright shared those concerns and said he does not want the city to be accused of First Amendment rights violations based off denial of permits for certain groups.
However, Hollingsworth said the intent of the proposal is not to have the city to have a say in what types of demonstrations are held or who is allowed to have a rally, but rather have a policy that prepares the city for any such type of event. “It’s not the nature of the event, but rather the impact of the event” that the city wants to look at, she said.
A permitting process lets the city know what to expect, when, where and at what time and will help the local government decide what resources are needed, if any. This process will inform the city of what type of event is planned so it can gauge the dynamics and better prepare for the event.
Hollingsworth pointed to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where public demonstrators and protestors clashed, as an example.
“I think that was shaped in large part because they knew and anticipated what was happening in the city, to a certain degree,” she said.
Councilwoman Paula Perry shared concerns about the city’s ability to handle any public demonstrating, noting the city does not have “that many officers on the streets at on time.” She said it would take time for the police to respond to any incidents and things could get out of control.
The mayor said Perry’s concerns were valid and pointed to the possible permitting process as a way to “anticipate to some degree” any issues with a public demonstration as compared to the city not having a permitting process and not knowing what a group is planning.
With advanced notice, she said, the city will have time to pull resources from surrounding jurisdictions if needed. Perry agreed but said she would also like to see the city have a way to charge permit applicants for any damages or extraneous extra resources the city made need as a result of their demonstration.
Hollingsworth said the city staff and attorney would look at other jurisdiction’s handling of such policies to see if they have similar policies and Councilwoman Erica Spell suggested the city look into the National Park Service’s permitting process for inspiration.