Council Weighs in on Dueling Parades

For the past several years, two organizations have been fighting over the rights to the prime time and location for an MLK Day parade. That fight has bled over into city council chambers where Houston officials are being forced to change their policies for parade permits. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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For years, the city hosted two MLK Day parades in downtown Houston. The two groups would fight and jockey for the 10 a.m. time slot, leading city council to approve an ordinance which allowed only one parade in the downtown area per day. So the two groups tried to merge their events -- and ended up in lawsuits with each other and the city over the whole affair. Now Houston City Council is reacting with new changes to the parades ordinance. Susan Christian heads up the city's special events department. She says the whole issue would be resolved if the city could enforce the one parade per day rule.

"While we were pushing hard for one parade per day, legal has advised us that because of the results of these lawsuits that we should go ahead and go back to two parades a day."

The judge reviewing the current litigation is questioning the rule change to one parade per day. Assistant City Attorney Rashaad Gambrell says when the last ordinance was changed, there was no evidence to substantiate that change between two parades in the downtown area down to one.

"Courts of law are always going to say if you want to make more of the public streets and thoroughfares available for someone to go out and exercise their First Amendment freedom of speech rights, by all means do so. But now when you attempt to collapse back down and in essence cut a venue in half from two to one per day in the downtown area, you have to show a significant governmental interest in doing so. And understand that at the time the last ordinance that we currently have in place was passed, that was not presented."

Several council members questioned the special events and legal department staff members including Councilmember Toni Lawrence.

"I have a problem when the whole city of Houston write an ordinance for a very few people. And that's what we're really doing, because two people can't get along -- or two groups can't get along. Which that whole situation should symbolize people that do get along. So it's kind of an oxymoron that we're writing an ordinance -- changing an ordinance for people to have parades on getting along with people and peace. So I have a major problem going to that and just openly can say I will not support this ordinance if we go two in one day."

While Lawrence was the only member of council to outright say she opposes the ordinance change, others including Pam Holm, Adrian Garcia and Ada Edwards strongly questioned the new rules and asked staff members to closely research whether the city could submit evidence allowing them to keep the one parade per day rule. Edwards capped the discussion with her opinion that she's not convinced anything they do will solve the problem. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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