A proposed policy change drove a large group of business leaders, event organizers, vendors and interested residents to voice their objections at the March 15, 2021 Brooksville City Council meeting. The proposed policy, which contained language that could potentially affect several events in Brooksville and private property rights was voted down 3-2 with Blake Bell, David Bailey and Mayor Pat Brayton voting in opposition to adoption.
Council members Betty Erhard and Robert Battista were in favor of keeping the proposal alive, but desired a workshop to change the language pertaining to private property and revising fees. Mayor Pat Brayton agrees with this direction and says he’ll schedule a workshop to hash out some of the main issues of contention.
It was freshman council member Bell who engaged in a question/answer format discussion with Special Projects Coordinator Charlene Kuhn and Fire Chief Ron Snowberger, which seemed to clarify some portions of the proposal, however did not satisfy Bell’s queries enough to vote in favor of the proposal.
Bailey, also serving his first term on the council read from a prepared statement. Ending by calling the policy “ridiculous,” he cited most recent data available from 2019. “Visitor spending contributed over $206.6 million to Hernando County’s economy. Of that, $53.5 million was spent on food and beverage. $29.9 million was spent on shopping and $20.1 million was spent on entertainment and recreation… This spending supported 3,822 jobs, or 5.7% of the county’s jobs … Visitors also contributed $23.5 million to state and local taxes, which benefit the city as well as the county.”
Bailey brought into perspective the current challenges businesses have faced over the last year by saying, “How tragic will it be to see our local business struggle through COVID only to have them fail due to a city policy that makes it logistically and financially impossible for special events to continue in our downtown?”
A History of Tension
Prior to the meeting, the new policy was circulated by Brooksville Main Street (BMS) on social media, as well as paper flyers throughout the city calling to action the business and events community. A post on Facebook, titled “Just The Facts,” contained a link to the proposal and listed several points of contention:
“ 1. Permits for all events in the city, even if they don’t close streets and even if the event is held on private property
2. Mandatory appearance before City Staff to answer questions about your event for them to decide if you are allowed to have it
3. Minimum $1000 security deposit for events of any size
4. Applications must be submitted at least 60 days in advance – this means no events will be able to occur in the city in April or May. This will mandate cancellation of Friday Night Live, Orange Avenue Market, Brooksville Bike Rally, our Art Stroll and anything else currently planned by anyone.
The scope is so broad it can be used to require churches to get city approval for events on their property and even require individuals to get city permission for weddings, birthday parties or family gatherings.
But to clarify, City Council did not write this policy. They can stop it by voting it down, but they did not write it. It was developed by City Staff under the direction of City Manager, Mark Kutney. For those not familiar with City government structure, City Council are elected and hire a City Manager to run day to day operations. Individual Council members cannot direct the manager’s activities; the manager does what the Council collectively asks him to do.”
There has been a history of tension between BMS and the City Council. Council Member Betty Erhard called for a vote to defund BMS in July 2020, which passed. However, funding was restored a short time later. Erhard later came under fire for comments she made in a Facebook group, suggesting that downtown businesses continuing to support BMS should be boycotted. Natalie Kahler, Executive Director for BMS is a former City Council member who sat on the dais with Erhard until Kahler’s resignation in 2018. Kahler resigned to run for a County Commission seat that year.
BMS Design Committee Chair JoAnne Peck considered some of the language in the proposed policy as a targeted attack on BMS. “(The final item in the new policy) is specific about Mobile Murals. It is the most directed, personal thing that I can see on there and is incredibly unprofessional …” Peck went on to say that her committee has met with Kutney and staff about the Mobile Mural project and never received input about any issues.
Peck added that “Mobile Mural” is a brand that she and her Arts Committee came up independently.
The proposed ordinance states,
“33. EVENT MARKETING AND MATERIALS
Event related mobile materials (to include mobile murals and other mobile marketing materials) may be displayed no more than twenty-four (24) hours prior to event start date and must be removed no later than twenty-four hours following event end date. Any material left displayed following the twenty-four (24) hour post-event period will be subject to removal at the City’s discretion. Placement of such materials must not constitute an obstruction to impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic and visibility, right-of-way, or the general safety of the public.”
Peck was the second to speak to the Council, preceded by Coney Island owner, John Lee, whose spirited three-minute address concluded with the suggestion that the council terminate City Manager Mark Kutney.
For approximately the next three hours, the council heard from a steady stream of community members that filled the chamber, leaving some standing along walls and in the hallway. All but one lifetime Brooksville resident, Donna Morin, adamantly opposed the policy changes.
Morin stated that the reason that so many people were angry was because Kahler had lied and misrepresented the proposal. She went on to say that Kahler “has made a mockery of this government, sending nasty emails to all you council members, and you don’t deserve [sic], with the exception of two,” gesturing in the direction of Council Members Bailey and Bell.
In closing, Morin said, “The Executive Director needs the city for grants, more money, and we don’t need them.” She went on to cite several points of the City of New Port Richey’s event application process, ostensibly more expensive than the proposal on the table in terms of fees.
Kahler approached the podium to address Morin’s statement, defending BMS’s public notice, stating it was posted to inform their Facebook followers about the proposal and its potential impact on currently scheduled events that don’t meet the application requirements.
The city’s position
After the conclusion of Citizen’s Input, Erhard addressed Mayor Brayton asking, “I’d like to hear what you have to say.”
Brayton passed the gavel to Vice Mayor Battista and answered, “I’m going to make a motion that we table this so we can get a workshop going so we can figure out what in the world is going on.” He went on to say that he doesn’t like the policy, resulting in applause from the audience. However, he expressed disappointment in Kahler and Peck for not giving him the opportunity to address the proposal before the posting on social media.
When Kutney addressed the citizens’ input en masse, he cited several “misrepresentations” of points made by BMS that drove the ire of the large audience. He stated that family events such as Easter egg hunts, family reunions were not included in the new policy, adding, “There is no intent whatsoever to affect anyone’s right to peaceful assembly.”
Kutney stated that every event would require an application as simply not true. He added that Friday Night Live events for March and April have already been approved. “And Ms. Kahler told us to hold on that.”
Kutney defended the length of the application, and said that the actual application is shorter than the 2019 edition, but the 25-page document includes additional information related to COVID and rules.
Special Projects Coordinator Charlene Kuhn presented highlights of the changes (listed below), stating that the goal of revising the application was “to plan safe and successful events with minimal impact to the community.”
— Created Special Events Committee made of Department representatives and the Sheriff’s Office
— All event applicants will attend a Special Events Committee meeting
— Application must be submitted 60 days prior to event date, 90 days for closure of state roads; previous of 30 days
— $50 application fee; previous $25
— Added security/damage deposit
— Added attendance levels and safety zones
— Increased Site Plan requirements
— Applicant is responsible of notifying businesses/residents of street closures and must provide proof of notification
— Defined what events must go before Council for approval
— Added Sheriff’s Office matrix
— Updated LEO, Fire/EMS and City services language
— Redesigned application
— Removed sponsorship credit to separate application
Battista was the first to propose changes to the proposal on the table. Calling the security deposit of $1000 minimum “steep,” he questioned if the reason for the hike was a response to events that may have resulted in damage to city property. The answer was “no.”
He went on to address the increased timeframes and would like to see them reduced. The major amendment Battista wants is to have the word “private” stricken from the policy wherever it appears. Ehrhard agreed.
The remainder of the discussion centered around the reasons for the changes, primarily safety. Adjusted fees for services provided by the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) have been set by those agencies and not within the city’s control. Fire Chief Ron Snowberger reported the necessity of enforcing fire codes for the safety of everyone involved in events.
With the community’s biggest concerns being the inclusion of “private property” and the onerous fee schedule, it is expected that these will be top priorities for a future workshop on updating the event policy. The Hernando Sun will update this story when the date for a workshop is announced.