Whose Park Is It, Anyway?

The Great Republican Party Pavilion Rental of 2020 has come and gone. Here’s a brief recap of the event.

Saed Hindash for LehighValley Live
  1. They came. Far more than the 100 on the original rental request. More than the 150 on the revised request. More than the 200 that is the occupancy rate for the pavilion. Possibly as many as 250.
  2. They ranted about law and order, freedom and private property.
  3. They violated multiple ordinances, tried (unsuccessfully) to intimidate the press who were on public property, and required additional work from Public Works and the police department to ensure the safety of the park.
  4. They left, taking their steaming pile of hypocrisy with them, thankfully without any violence although some attendees were clearly armed.

At least one Councilperson attended the event, Mr. Banonis, who apparently did not find it necessary to point out to the organizers of the event that they were, in fact, violating Township ordinances. Perhaps that’s because he’s the Vice-Chair of the group that organized the event but who knows. I don’t know if any other Councilpersons were there.

An email from Carol Schneider on behalf of the Township to Lee Snover of the organizing sponsor dated the day of the event reminded Ms. Snover that the pavilion had a capacity of 200 and that they were expected to adhere to the rules and regulations for use of the pavilion which Ms. Schneider referenced in the letter. She especially pointed out Rule #17, to wit:

No person shall commit any of the following acts within any Township Park:

17. Posting or displaying any sign, banner, or advertisement of a political or commercial nature.

Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

Ms. Schneider also reminded Ms. Snover of the requirement to comply with “PRPS guidelines that were previously provided and CDC guidelines.” Needless to say, Rule 17 was flagrantly violated and there was little in the way of mask-wearing or social distancing per PRPS or CDC guidelines within the pavilion itself.

Earlier in the day, Public Works employees were seen cordoning off areas of the park, presumably for parking control, and Chief Barndt had already indicated that additional police personnel had been engaged for the time of the event. None of this comes for free. I believe that Mrs. deLeon has requested information on the exact costs to the Township of this event as well as a review of the regulations for pavilion rentals vs. event approvals for the October 7 meeting.

It is reassuring that there will be follow-up and accountability for how this event was handled. Quite a point was made at the Township Council meeting on September 16 about the fact that this was a “private event” and that there was no difference from other private rentals of the pavilion. Let’s put to rest the concept that this was a private event. A private event is one where specific attendees are invited to attend by the event sponsor, the number of attendees is under the sponsor’s control, and the sponsor has some control and/or responsibility for the behavior of the attendees. Obviously none of these conditions pertained. Ms. Huhn and Mr. Treadwell said they had reviewed prior pavilion rentals and had not found occasions when they had been declined. I wonder how many of those prior rentals required Public Works to make preparations for parking or for the police department to hire additional officers?

All of which brings me to a much larger point. Just whose parks are “public parks” and what is the appropriate way to view their usage? Let’s consider a few points:

1. Who Should Have Priority?

The current Parks and Athletic Facilities Use Policy currently includes this explanation of how use of the parks is to be prioritized: “It is the policy of Lower Saucon Township to prioritize the use of park facilities to non-profit and not-for-profit organizations in the Saucon Valley. The Township has established four (4) categories of users which shall be followed in the allocation and scheduling of park facilities.”

The four categories are: 1) the Township itself, 2) local recreation providers, 3) local civic, business and/or educational groups, and 4) other contracted organizations (basically everybody who doesn’t fall into categories 1, 2, and 3). This seems like a reasonable approach and under this structure, the sponsoring organization for the September 17 event definitely falls into Category 4, the lowest priority requester of facilities.

2. How Do You Determine Appropriateness of Use by a Group?

The Use Policy continues with this information on how it will be determined that groups can use the parks: “The Township reserves the right to set priorities for usage based upon, but not limited to, the following: the number of participants, the residency of the participants, and the overall impact of the group or organization on the recreational needs of the Township.”

What happens when the requesting group misrepresents the size of its group? What happens when the purpose of the event causes widespread community concern about safety issues? What happens when the requesting group has no control over the behavior of its attendees? Shouldn’t these be taken into consideration?

3. Who Pays the Bill?

Township parks are maintained by the tax dollars of the people who live in the township. When the township incurs additional cost for the maintenance and safety of the parks, as happened with the Sept. 17 event, that money comes out of the taxes paid by the citizens if there is no prior agreement with the group using the parks. When a group is permitted to simply “rent the pavilion,” there is no included acknowledgement of the need to pay for additional Township costs unless there is specific damage caused by the event, in which case the Township is entitled to recoup repair costs. When a group requests an Event permit or a Special Events permit, the group accepts responsibility for the additional costs as well as a more stringent liability agreement.

4. What Kinds of Activities Are Undesirable?

I find it interesting that there is a Rule 17 in the Rules and Regulations already. It indicates that at some point the Township Council specifically determined that blatant politicking and obvious commercial activities were not an appropriate use of the parks. In other words, the basis for the refusal of the rental of the pavilion was already inherent in the rules for the use of the pavilion for this particular event. And in fact, Rule 17 makes sense from the township citizen’s perspective. If you have paid tax dollars to maintain a recreational area for you and your community, do you want it to be used for either commercial money-making activities or for partisan political events? Shouldn’t a citizenry be allowed to draw the line at what is permissible on “their” property? Certainly a political event to hear speakers rant does not qualify as a “recreational” use of the property.

An attendee attempts to block the press from photographing the event on public property. Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

What Does All This Mean?

I hope that the Township Council takes this event as a learning experience. It seems clear that there has already been considerable thought as to the appropriateness of political activity on public park property. It is not a matter of which political party is sponsoring the event. Public tax dollars should not be used to underwrite the costs of political events of this nature. This type of event should be held on private property where the property owner can assume the liability of any safety issues and the costs of additional preparation and security.

If the Township reviews its policy and decides that political parties should be allowed to use its facilities, then they should be charged a market rate for their use along with the costs of additional services provided by the Township such as parking and enhanced security. The Township should require an Event permit that requires Council approval in order to remove the Township Manager from the awkward position of having to make a judgement of appropriateness. And the Township should be prepared to enforce its prohibitions against “signs, banners and advertisements.” Otherwise it’s just a toothless dragon.

Public Discussion

If you were concerned about how this entire affair was handled or if you would like to see the Council take action to prevent putting citizens in this position again, Mrs. deLeon has requested that this issue be placed on the agenda of the next Township Council meeting on October 7 at 7 PM. If you would like to have your input heard, please plan to be at the Zoom meeting that evening. You can register to attend the meeting here.

Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, October 7 – 7 PM

Media Resource Links:

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/mccloskeys-draw-large-crowd-of-trump-supporters-for-lower-saucon-rally/ar-BB199Pjz?ocid=sms

https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/swingcounty/2020/09/in-trump-stump-rally-lehigh-valley-republicans-cheer-on-the-mccloskeys-who-pointed-guns-at-st-louis-protesters.html

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