Photo Caption: The house at 11 Palmer Street.
After an alleged arson at 11 Palmer St. effectively ended Palmer Fest for the third time in four years Saturday night, critics in letters and online message boards have been urging the city to ban the annual spring student block parties entirely.
But an outright ban on unsanctioned street festivals doesn't appear to be where the city is headed. And Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl said at his weekly press conference Wednesday that he doesn't see how the city could ban constitutionally protected rights of assembly anyway. Instead, city officials are opting for a renewed community dialogue and perhaps some administrative changes to the law enforcement approach to these events.
Shortly after 7 p.m. on Saturday, a fire broke out in the basement at 11 Palmer. A half hour later, Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl declared Palmer Street a "riot area" due to some partygoers throwing bottles at firefighters and impeding access to the fire. Law enforcement cleared the street and went house-to-house shutting down individual parties by 8 p.m.
The Palmer Fest block parties in 2009 and 2010 were each shut down after furniture was lit on fire in the middle of the street.
After meetings between the city administration, OU officials, emergency officials and City Council President Jim Sands, officials decided that such a ban would be too confrontational of an approach. Instead, law enforcement tactics will be adjusted, and there will be increased community dialogue.
"It was decided against (a ban) but the idea was there are going to be changes," Sands said. "The control by the police will be handled differently, hopefully not in a confrontational way at all. That's why they're having more meetings."
Sands said that it's an ongoing issue, and Monday's meetings were centered around whether an outright ban would be appropriate, but the consensus was against it.
"I believe the thinking was that it was too confrontational on behalf of the city to just say that there won't be any such things," he said. "What we need to do is work with everybody involved to change the attitudes."
Ron Lucas, deputy service-safety director for the city, said Wednesday that the meetings have been attended by the city and OU police chiefs, Dean of Students Ryan Lombardi, OU President Roderick McDavis, Mayor Wiehl, Service-Safety Director Paula Horan Moseley, Fire Chief Robert Troxel and other OU officials.
"Basically we talked about the message we want to put out to community regarding the upcoming spring events," he said of the Tuesday meetings. "That's really all we've done to this point."
Wiehl pointed out that the festivals are already not sanctioned by the city.
"The right to assemble is a constitutional right," Wiehl said. He acknowledged that whether or not these street fests can be stopped has been discussed but the city just can't stop people from gathering.
"There's no easy answer; this has been festering for many, many years," he said. "Some of the questions are how our responses worked. We went in several directions: Can we stop it? Can we change the tone of it? What can we do beforehand?"
He announced that a meeting to discuss the fests is being scheduled for May 9 on the OU campus.
Though any ban on these annual spring fests would have to be approved by City Council, the only member present at the Monday meeting where it was discussed was Sands. In subsequent interviews, other council members tended to agree that the city shouldn't enact an outright ban.
Second Ward City Council member Jeff Risner said Wednesday that a lot of people are outraged, shocked and disgusted by the events over the weekend, including many students.
"The city is just going to have to take a good, hard look at these unpermitted festivals and block parties and see what we can come up with," he said. "I'm sure there are statutes on the books right now that would essentially shut them down. They're not permitted. There is no permit issued."
He said it's a shame these spring fests can't be more like Halloween where there is a "clean and safe" committee, local input and less trouble.
"I think it would be to everybody's advantage if this whole spring thing could become more like that," he said.
Third Ward member Michele Papai said Wednesday that City Council needs to have a discussion with all stakeholders. She pointed to the memorandum of understanding recently signed between the city and university.
"I would say that's a good place to start, and pull in some student leaders as well to get their opinion," she said. "One of the concerns I hear all the time from Ohio University students is people comment to them during job interviews about the party status of the school. We need to consider that and how it bears on an Ohio University degree."
She said that her impression is that there has been not only an increase in the number of these fests occurring each year but also an increase in destructive behavior stemming from them.
At-large member Steve Patterson said Wednesday that the city has to get community input from all constituency groups.
"I'm kind of perplexed," he said. "And I'm just saying that because unfortunately we create an opportunistic environment where the potential is high for somebody to come in from outside our community and do things. The case is under investigation, so who knows what actually happened."
He said that he stresses to students to be hyper-aware of their surroundings.
"Bad things can still happen, but I personally think this was one of those cases," he said. "This environment just lends itself to bad people coming in and possibly doing bad things."
A ban isn't the preferred way to go, Patterson said, agreeing that it's too confrontational approach. He said that his students have expressed to him that they are upset about these events as well.
"I agree that it would create more city-wide strife that coming up with another way to do things administratively," he said.The spring fest schedule still has a few to go, with Ark Fest this Saturday, Oak Fest on May 11, Mill Fest May 12 and Nine Fest on May 19, though the latter takes place outside the city in a rural venue.