Municipal lawn use questioned

Council debates stricter policies for events

By: Jessica Strachan | Southfield Sun | Published August 22, 2012

 Upon rejecting a proposal by an out-of-state group to have the 2013 Soul Food Festival on the municipal lawn in Southfield, council discussed enacting a stricter policy to allow more control over which events can be held on City Hall grounds.

Upon rejecting a proposal by an out-of-state group to have the 2013 Soul Food Festival on the municipal lawn in Southfield, council discussed enacting a stricter policy to allow more control over which events can be held on City Hall grounds.

Photo by Donna Agusti

SOUTHFIELD — After an Oklahoma organization’s proposal to use Southfield’s municipal lawn for an event left city officials unimpressed, a new policy for use of the space is in the works.

During the Aug. 13 Southfield City Council meeting, Council President Joan Seymour presented a proposal by City Administrator Jim Scharret to enact stricter policies for use of City Hall’s “front yard” when it comes to festivities not put on by the city.

The proposal came with a packet of information documenting less-than-desirable online reviews about a group that hosts soul food festivals in various cities. The information gathered depicted poor organization in the planning and ticket sales, leading the city to turn down the proposal to have the event in Southfield in 2013.

“We want to accept diverse events, but not have it be a free-for-all,” Seymour said, adding that council should avoid groups on the lawn that would “tear it up.”

The request generated conversation about exactly what events should be allowed and protocol in making decisions. Seymour cited concerns such as insufficient capacity, security and crowd control issues and diminishing city staff to take on events not initiated by the city.

Some council members, like Don Fracassi, agreed that the front lawn reflects the image of the city and should be used carefully, while other officials expressed concern that such a new policy would strip Southfield of opportunity.

“What’s troubling for me is that we wouldn’t want to preclude something really nice coming along. I think you have to allow for the merit of the individual event,” Councilman Jeremy Moss said. “When it’s a city-initiated event, we can only do so many of the same types of events.”

Moss said he’d hope to see more events for “mature crowds” coming to Southfield, like concerts, rather than just the handful of family and kid-oriented events the city usually hosts. He added that he’d also like to leave room for events that would typically be unaffordable for the city to host on its own.

“We could, on a case-by-case basis, partner with outside groups,” he said.

The objectivity of enacting a policy that would allow council to accept or reject organizations based on preference was also debated. Seymour was met with resistance when she suggested “we’re not trying to limit events, we are trying to control the types.”

“If somebody came to us and we really wanted to partner with them, we could say we initiated it,” she said, adding that it’s about “semantics.”

Council woman Sylvia Jordan said she worried those “semantics” would get the city in trouble down the road and agreed with Moss about the need to evaluate each event proposal rather than adopting a rigid policy. This would allow the front lawn to be well-kept, but with ground rules that didn’t make the city of Southfield seem partial to some groups, she explained.

“That (policy) is basically saying, ‘if we like you, you can. If we don’t, you can’t,’” she said.

Mayor Brenda Lawrence noted the overall vision for Southfield.

“The front lawn, by nature of it being so publically visible, has always been the ‘can we have an event there’ (place). We, as a city, miss out on a lot of opportunities because I think we struggle with that.”

She added that Southfield was not founded with nightlife in mind, though the current structures and facilities, like the Southfield Pavilion and municipal lawn, are essentially wasted resources, especially for generating revenue.

“For us to be the ‘center of it all,’ we have not embraced how we market this city for public, entertaining events,” she said, adding that the lawn should function on the business model of any other venue, with a proper application, ground rules and a binding contract about which duties the city will carry as a host site and which responsibilities will be left to the organization sponsoring the event.

This type of process would also keep things objective and keep residents in Southfield for entertainment, rather than leaving in search of it, she explained.

“If we adopt a philosophy like that (of keeping people off the lawn) we again push away organizations because we have this image that nothing should happen in the city,” she said. “My philosophy is that the council has individually reviewed events as they come up before, and if it’s a no, it’s a no. We shouldn’t shut down opportunity now.”

Council cited various city events, like the Chaldean Festival hosted each year by the American Chaldean Chamber of Commerce and the previously-held radio-station sponsored Smooth Jazz Festival, that were vetted in the city to end up on the municipal lawn.

Ted Davis, facilities supervisor in the Parks and Recreation Department, who did not attend the meeting, said that, typically, all event proposals are handled through his department, then go on to the Parks and Recreation Board and are passed on to council for ultimate approval.

Davis said issues such as unreliability, frequent cancellations or ticket problems raise red flags for the city while they research proposals. Organization and safety are also main concerns determining whether events will be recommended to council.

Events that are family-oriented, benefit the city or are inclusive to a majority of Southfield residents are those that are often accepted, he said.

“It’s a living, breathing document, constantly evolving and changing as we continually figure out what works and what doesn’t,” he added.

As concerns were raised in the City Council meeting about loopholes of the proposed policy, council decided that Scharret will meet with Parks and Recreation to draft a more thorough and efficient policy proposal.

Davis said he believes the current criteria Parks and Recreation uses will be evaluated now, too, with the council and city administrators being involved. Formal regulations, such as capacity for the lawn Davis estimates is the size of “a couple football fields,” could also be addressed.

Ultimately, Davis said the department will follow their lead.

“I think the lawn does reflect the city and they should be selective. I’m sure my colleagues agree,” he said. “Most times these decisions come down to elected officials anyway, and we respect their vision and decisions.”