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Wauwatosa reconsiders allowing rallies in parks

Tosa Tonight looks for rental guidelines

June 20, 2012

Prohibiting political rallies in Hart Park could limit revenue needed to maintain the Rotary Performance Pavilion, Tosa Tonight representatives told the Parks and Forestry Board on Tuesday.

Nearly six months after a political action committee organized a rally at the stage in support of Gov. Scott Walker, officials from the Parks Board and Tosa Tonight are trying to figure out how to handle future requests regarding politically related rentals.

"Limiting the events does put a strain on what we're trying to accomplish," said Chris Leffler, a Tosa Tonight board member.

The Tosa Tonight concert series receives money from sponsorships and donations, which gets stretched to pay for the free summer concert series and maintaining the pavilion. The group understood the Park Board's intention was to book the stage as often as possible, he said.

The stage, which was donated by local Rotary clubs, is city property. However, the city is in year two of a five-year contract with nonprofit organization Tosa Tonight to oversee the performance venue.

"A lot of this is unchartered territory," said Brian Leahy, also a Tosa Tonight representative. "We didn't think that would be fair for us to discriminate as a nonprofit organization managing a public entity."

He believes complaints started specifically because the rally supported Walker, not because of a more general concept of it having been a political event.

Earlier this year, the Police Department questioned the overtime expenses incurred by monitoring the rally. That led to the creation of a special events ordinance, requiring organizers to obtain a permit for any gathering that might require a police presence on city property, including Hart Park.

That still leaves parks officials wondering if political activities should even be a permitted use. The city has a policy prohibiting political activities in the park without permission of the board, said Ken Walbrant, Parks and Forestry superintendent.

The political action committee that rented the pavilion, Onward Wisconsin, also rented a portion of the park between 72nd and 70th streets. However, parks staff authorized the rental without bringing the request to the board.

Had parks staff turned down the request, it might have been seen as a partisan decision, Walbrant added.

"Where do we draw the line?" he asked. "It would be so much cleaner to say, 'I'm sorry we don't have political rallies of any kind.' I don't think politics have a place in parks and recreation. In fact, I think the two are mutually exclusive."

However, Tosa Tonight didn't do anything wrong by allowing the rally, City Attorney Alan Kesner has said during discussions on the topic. City ordinance allows for separate rules for specific areas of the park, and the area around the pavilion is covered by the lease with Tosa Tonight.

There's a huge gray area and it would be best if the board reviewed the policy - at the next meeting, since there wasn't a quorum in attendance - so it can provide direction on bookings to Tosa Tonight, members of both groups said.

Walbrant and Public Works Director Bill Porter plan to meet with the city attorney for guidance. They will report back July 17.

Next step

WHAT: The Parks and Forestry Board will discuss policies for renting park space.

WHEN: 7:30 a.m. July 17

WHERE: Muellner Building in Hart Park, 7300 Chestnut St.

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