Hassling the Hippies?
After last year's Extravaganja festival on the Amherst Town Common, event organizer Terry Franklin stayed up late picking up garbage and assembling the full plastic bags where he could easily pick them up when the dump opened in the morning. When he came back the next morning, though, the dozen or so bags were gone. A few days later, Franklin received a bill from the town for disposing 8,000 pounds of garbage.
That would be a lot of garbage—four tons, the equivalent of a full-grown female elephant. Franklin said he was certain that there hadn't been that much trash.
Being overcharged for trash removal is just one in a series of hurdles the event, which promotes the decriminalization of marijuana, has faced over the years, Franklin said.
"You have to stand up to [Amherst's town government]," Terry said. "Otherwise, they'll whittle you down with petty bureaucratic annoyances and harassments. Every year it's something different. In the late '90s, it was real overt police harassment. They'd show up in large numbers, just for intimidation purposes.
"After 2000, when Amherst town meeting voted to legalize marijuana, they backed off a bit. But every year, it would be something different. Maybe [we'd have] a car on the Common for the sound crew. For the town fair, they've got tractor-trailers out there, but we get grief for our one car. Another year, they said they needed a building inspector to inspect our stage.
"A couple years ago, the police chief didn't want me speaking on stage, because I criticize him personally. So, he's advising the organizers to keep me off the stage, and what are they supposed to do? Argue with the police? I actually had to file a misconduct complaint about that two years ago, and he's backed off since that."
The overcharge for trash removal last year was eventually fixed. Nearly a month after the April 21 festival, Town Manager Larry Shaffer sent Franklin an email, dated May 16, 2007.
"I just got off the phone with Guilford Mooring [Superintendent of Public Works] relative to the issue of charging for 8,000 pounds of trash for the Extravaganga [sic] Festival… the weight was incorrect (the truck weight was not deducted)." He said the bill would be revised, and he followed up with, "I attended Extravaganga and enjoyed the music and the crowd. It was a good event and I am happy to recommend that it continue."
Shaffer didn't return calls from the Advocate seeking comment, so it's hard to ascertain why it took so long to run down the obvious overcharge. Perhaps Shaffer's attention was turned from the mundane details of administering town government to loftier matters, albeit matters for which he is hardly responsible. Why else would Shaffer take the liberty to offer his recommendation that Extravaganja continue?
As a political event, Franklin argues, Extravaganja is protected by the First Amendment. Provided the organizing group follows the required permit procedures and acts peaceably when assembled, it is protected by the constitutional right to assemble. In that context, how Shaffer feels about the Extravaganja and his personal recommendations of the event are irrelevant.
Franklin worries that, despite constitutional protections, efforts have been made by town officials, without involvement and oversight by the town Select Board, to impede efforts to stage Extravaganja on the Town Common. For example, a month after the trash issue was resolved, the Superintendent of Public Works issued the following memorandum:
"Due to budgetary changes effective July 1, 2007, the Amherst Police Department no longer can supply police officers without assessing a fee for certain requested events that are scheduled on the town common. Please contact the office of the Chief of Police so a determination can be made whether police officers are needed for your planned event.
"All requests for officer details must be prepaid before a common reservation is valid…. If contact with Amherst Police Department is not made by September 1, 2007 your permit is determined to be VOID and your reservation date may be reissued to another request."
Though the memorandum was issued in June, Franklin and his colleagues did not learn of the change of rules until November, when they were told that their permit had been cancelled and they would need to follow the new procedures. Franklin's group called members of the select board, all whom were equally ignorant of the new "law." Meanwhile, calls to the police office and Town Manager confirmed that Extravaganja would need to pay overtime for the two officers the police felt were required to monitor the event.
On December 3, 2007 Franklin brought the issue to the Amherst Select Board, the members of which unanimously claimed that they'd been unaware of the change in rules. Board Chairman Gerry Weiss said that the rule would be suspended until he had heard from legal councel and from those town officials who had tried to enforce it. Two months later, neither Shaffer nor the town's lawyer had responded.
In an interview with the Advocate this week, Weiss said it was unclear why Shaffer felt he was empowered to change policy without the board's approval. Weiss said that, given the board's strong reaction against the decision to charge for police details, it was unlikely that such a law would ever be passed—at least not without a lot more discussion.
Weiss assured Franklin in an email earlier this month that "no groups will be charged for police." Such assurances, however, have not allayed Franklin's fears: "With all due respect, if I had 10 cents for every time some government official told me something 'wasn't a problem, don't worry about it,' only to have some subsequent bureaucrat say 'I don't know (or care) what they told you, but hey, it's on the books,' [I'd be rich]."
Franklin said he doesn't want the policy simply "suspended," but taken off the books altogether.
Weiss, meanwhile, contends that Franklin is "pounding at a technicality." In his email to Franklin, he points out that "There are other by-laws and policies on the books as well that aren't enforced for similar reasons—they need review."
The larger question, however, appears to be what role the Town Manager and Public Works Department have in setting policy, and how those officials can enforce rules that not even the Select Board is aware of.