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Wednesday, May 2,2012

City wants to control fests, not stop them

In wake of arson fire, pressure’s turning up on city, OU

By David DeWitt

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.


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"he doesn't see how the city could ban constitutionally protected rights of assembly anyway"

Is he serious? Does anyone believe the hometowns of the fest organizers would allow them to have such an event on the street their parents live on? That their hometown mayors would willingly spend $40K of their city's money to ride herd on their drunken street party? 

Does this mayor and city council forget that they decide whether to allow parades and other large assemblies of people in their city? Is he now saying he is violating the US Constitution when they say no to such a request? 

In actuality, our elected officials are afraid of these students - afraid they'll riot if the city refuses to play this silly game any more. They will continue to do what they've always done - talk and discuss and dialogue and plead and beg and then, allow these students to spend $40K of our tax dollars next year because they are afraid to do otherwise.

Handwringing and "a meeting to discuss the fests" are not what this city needs right now. We need leadership.



Taking over the streets is not legal.  Open containers and drinking in the streets is not legal.  Littering is not legal. Smoking pot is not legal. Urinating in public is not legal.  Arson is not legal. Disorderly conduct is not legal. Public intoxication is not legal.  The list could go on and on regarding all the illegal things that occur at the “fests.”  But we must protect the right to “assemble.”  I think I’ll go stand in the street in front of the City Building blocking traffic, drinking a beer, smoking a joint, and urinating on the pedestrian crossing and see what happens.  Heck, I have the constitutional right to express myself.



I think keeping the fests alive and letting the tradition live in on is a great idea.  Fest season makes OU very unique and it is one of the reasons so many students LOVE OU.  At a typical spring fest you see nothing but smiling faces and feel as if you are a part of a surreal atmosphere filled with good energry, music, drinks, and freinds. 

Yes, I will admit that lighting a house or a couch on fire is certainly over stepping the boundaries.  I do however feel that the house fire is not to be correlated with "festing".  For those of you who do not know there have been 3 or 4 arsons on campus so far this year and I believe one last year.  I would not be the least bit surprised if this house fire is related to the campus arsons, and I think that it was wrong to connect the house fire with the festing. 

It seems that their are some Athens community members who are no happy about the fests or the mayor's decision to let them live on.  There are a few reasons why I am bothered by this.
1.  Where the fests take place are STUDENT DOMINATED NEIGHBORHOODS.  Out of all of the fests I would say high fest is the most likely to bother Homeowners in Athens, but high fest is also one of the more tame fests.  In the Palmer, Mill, Oak, Stewart, Hocking area, I personally know of ONE non student resident on Oak street and that is it.  For the rest of you who live elsewhere I do not see how this can be problem for you.

2.  As I stated in point 1, the area where the fests take place are student dominated neighborhoods.  It would only make sense that in the student areas, the city caters to the students.  Now if for instance the students tried to organize a Morris Ave Fest or Maplewood Dr Fest, I would totally understand why the community would be mad. 

 I am an OU student, but I started my college career at a different university.  The city in which my previous university was located in, would not allow fests when the students attempted.  Even an average weekend was pretty uneventful all around town. Due to the heavy restrictions put on the students, IT WAS EXTREMELY BORING.  Many students did not enjoy that type of atmosphere and often complained about it.  Being in Athens is a MUCH MORE ENJOYABLE atmosphere for a college student.  Athens is so much more eventful and fun compared to where I previously attended college.  I think this is a huge reason why students love OU, not just because of the University but because of Athens.  I would really hate to see Athens change and become that town where the college students have no rights or freedoms.

As for the party school reputation.  Here at OU there are certainly good parties and awesome bars but that does not mean that OU students PHYSICALLY PARTY more than others.  Being that I have previously attended a public university and have visited a few others I have learned one thing.  NO MATTER WHAT, STUDENTS AT A LARGE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY WILL DRINK A LOT.  Those who believe that someone from OU is not as qualified as someone from lets say Kent is very ignorant.

The last thing I would like to say is Mayor Wiehl, you are making the right choice !  I respect your decision to not ban fests but perhaps look for ways to make them safer.  From a students perspective you do a great job and for that I thank you!




Great, then you guys shouldn't mind picking up the $40K the fests cost the city.



"The city in which my previous university was located in, would not allow fests when the students attempted.  Even an average weekend was pretty uneventful all around town. Due to the heavy restrictions put on the students, IT WAS EXTREMELY BORING.  Many students did not enjoy that type of atmosphere and often complained about it."


The Firstest First World Problem I ever did see.