Interim Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl says that anyone who wants to hold an event that requires a city street to be blocked must get a permit from the City’s Street Use Staff Commission.
During the application process, which can involve representatives from the Police Department, Madison Metro, Streets, and Parks among others, the Commission works with the organizer to determine what City resources are needed for the event.
Event planners agree to pay for those resources during the process, but sometimes protest organizers resist paying
“Some organizers have sort of been of the mind that their activity is a First Amendment expression, and that they don’t feel they should have to pay for that, so what I have done in terms of the police staffing is then we’ve directed them to the Mayor’s office and that they can seek a waiver of the cost from the Mayor’s office, and sometimes that’s been granted in the past,” Wahl says.
As part of their permit for September’s climate strike, organizers for the Youth Climate Action Team agreed to pay all costs of the City of Madison Police, Parking Enforcement, and Madison Fire staff assigned to the event.
Earlier this month, the Madison Police Department sent the team a bill for more than $4,600.
Max Prestigiacamo organized the event. He says the Youth Climate Action Team requested the City not assign any police to the march as part of those discussions.
“And obviously the City said no, and so we were basically told, ‘You’re going to do this permit the way we want it, or everyone there could get arrested [because] it would be an illegal occupation,” Prestigiacamo says. “So, we just kind of had to go with it because it was so last minute, and the City was threatening to take away our permit and we had families, children, [and] lots of [other] people coming, and we were not about to put these people at risk of arrest.”
Prestigiacamo also says the Police Department never billed the team for organizing a climate strike this past March, so the charge was surprising.
While Prestigiacamo believes the March protest, which was larger than the September one, required a greater police presence, a spokesperson for the City of Parks Department confirmed in an email to WORT that the Youth Climate Action Team did not apply for a permit with the City for the March demonstration.
Acting Chief Wahl says the Police Department is not able to bill for spontaneous or permitless protests.
“I mean we obviously cannot send a bill for those types of events or activities, and that’s why I think we certainly want to encourage people to go through the street use process because it allows us to plan and prepare and have adequate staffing there to make sure that the event is safe for everybody,” Wahl says.
But Acting Chief Wahl wants to avoid that situation in the first place. He says the current permit process could be improved to better accommodate First Amendment activities.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest to have some sort of waiver process or appeal process built in so that people are encouraged to cooperate and not try to circumvent the system to avoid being billed,” he notes.
Yesterday, the Youth Climate Action Team announced via Instagram that Mayor Rhodes-Conway had rescinded the bill. The team also stated that anyone who contributed to their Venmo as part of their efforts to cover the bill should email them for a refund.
A blog post from Chief Wahl yesterday hinted that the city may move to streamline the permitting process to make the option for a cost waiver part of the permit application process. A spokesperson for the Mayor did not return our request for comment by the time this story aired.