Spencer Pride: ‘Discriminatory’ ordinance targets LGBTQ festival

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SPENCER, Ind. (WISH) ⁠— Spencer residents accused Owen County’s board of commissioners of discriminating against the LGBTQ community with a proposed “special events” ordinance.

If approved, the ordinance would impose new fees and restrictions on “any organized gathering of people for any purpose for a limited period of time” requiring the use of county resources or impacting the surrounding area.

Provisions were developed to help recoup security and damage costs, board members stated during public meetings, and include:

  • a $200 application fee
  • a $500 refundable deposit
  • a $30 health department fee per vendor
  • $30 per hour for each law enforcement officer
  • $25 to $90 for emergency medical personnel
  • $15 per day for water
  • $15 per day for electrical services.

The 7-page ordinance would also ban alcohol, discrimination and harassment, courthouse access and “sale or display of sexually suggestive or explicit items or images.”

Leaders of Spencer Pride, a nonprofit organization that hosts an annual LGBTQ pride festival on the courthouse lawn, said they believed the ordinance was drafted to target their festival.

“We have struggled with the commissioners, in particular [board of commissioners president] Jeff Brothers, for years,” said Spencer Pride president Jonathan Balash. “We’ve had this past with him. He’s also said outside of public meetings that he’s wanted to shut our event down.”

Brothers did not immediately respond to requests for comment from News 8.

When questioned about the purpose of the special events ordinance during a commissioners’ meeting, the three-member board told community members the county had received “feedback” with concerns about the costs of festival security and damage to county-owned property, according to people who attended the meeting.

Balash disputed the commissioners’ claim about the content of the feeback they had received and the intended purpose of the proposed ordinance.

“Ultimately, we went to the courthouse and we were able to get copies of all these form letters,” he told News 8. “The letters specifically focused on adding restrictions for things that were sexually suggestive or explicit.”

Owen County has never billed Spencer Pride for damages associated with their festival, Balash said.

County officials did not immediately respond to questions from News 8 about how they would determine what constituted “sexually suggestive or explicit items or images.”

No indecent exposure citations have been issued for festival-goers during the pride festival’s 13-year run, according to Balash.

“We’re not willing to step backwards in time,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to be the focus of harassment by the commissioners who are just trying to move forward an ideological agenda based on their personal beliefs. We can all have our personal beliefs and that’s okay. But when you’re a public official, you should be all about transparency and honesty.”

If approved, the ordinance would stunt local economic growth, according to business owners and community members.

“People aren’t going to want to move here or do business here if we’re known as a community that’s not open-minded,” said Susan Short, a children’s book illustrator who lives in Spencer with her husband.

She initially experienced “culture shock” when she relocated from Indianapolis in 2007, she told News 8.

“It was a lot more old fashioned here 12 years ago,” Short said. “It’s so nice to see an accepting, loving community growing here now… This ordinance is a step backwards.”

Janet Rummel, a Spencer Main Street board member and Spencer Pride’s external events coordinator, said certain provisions in the proposed ordinance — including an application fee — were “not unreasonable.”

She remained hopeful community members and county commissioners could reach a compromise without litigation.

“We absolutely want to work with them,” Rummel said. “We’re worried about some of the smaller festivals. It’s ironic that the one festival that seems to be targeted is likely the only festival that would be able to continue running and afford these fees.”

Under the ordinance, the estimated cost of county fees for a “typical” 7-hour festival would exceed $1,500, according to Balash.

Commissioners did not hear public comment regarding the ordinance during their Monday evening meeting. 

Residents seeking to share feedback with commissioners can request to add the matter to the agenda for their regularly scheduled Nov. 4 meeting, Brothers told attendees.

Owen County’s board of commissioners did not immediately respond to requests for comment from News 8.

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