PATERSON, NJ – In an effort to avoid the controversies that arose last year, city officials are working on a new ordinance to regulate parades in Paterson. In particular, city officials are trying to come up with a way to impose fees to cover city expenses stemming from the parades without infringing on cultural groups’ constitutional rights.
Parades celebrating Turkish, Peruvian, African-American and Puerto Rican heritage were canceled or rerouted last year after the city decided to require cultural groups sponsoring the parades to pick up the tab for overtime and other expenses associated with police and public works services needed for the events.
The Dominican parade group was the only one that managed to hold its event and that came only after it sued the city in federal court on the grounds that the fees violated the organization’s constitutional rights of free speech. In a settlement negotiated in the judge’s chambers last summer, the city agreed not to impose the fees on the Dominican group, which in turn agreed to reduce the length of the parade route.
That deal temporarily opened the way for parades to resume operating as they had prior to Paterson’s attempt to collect fees. But city officials are moving ahead with a new effort to regulate the parades and impose fees. Last year’s Dominican parade cost the city more than $60,000 in police and public works overtime, according to city officials. In 2010, when all the cultural parades went on, the city spent more than $250,000 in overtime and other costs for the events, according to municipal records.
In the midst of an ongoing budget crisis, city officials say they cannot afford to pay for the private groups’ celebrations.
At its meeting Tuesday night, the city council referred a proposed parade ordinance to its public safety, public works and finance subcommittees for review and modifications before it gets put to a vote. Last year’s attempt at collecting fees was done without enacting an ordinance.
In any case, it seems unlikely the new ordinance would be ready to take effect in time for the first parade planned for this year, the Turkish event scheduled for May 20. After going through the three committees, the ordinance would to be voted on at two separate city council meetings and then be the subject of a public hearing. After all that, the new city law could not take effect until 20 days after it were approved.
Moreover, the parade fee ordinance likely will become a lightning rod for controversy heightened by the political campaign leading up to the May 8 city council elections. Last year’s plan for imposing the parade fees galvanized the city’s Dominican community, which has emerged a new force in Paterson politics.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Julio Tavarez protested that the subcommittees were being given the draft of the administration’s proposed parade fee ordinance to consider, but not his version. Tavarez said he is proposing an ordinance that would not impose any fees, but simply set up a municipal appeal process for groups whose parade permits are denied. The lack of such an appeal process is one of the reasons the Dominican group ended up taking Paterson to federal court.