This week, the Tracy City Council had to nail down the difference between unwelcome visitors at a private event and people exercising their First Amendment rights to use a city park as a public forum.
A new policy governing the use of city parks, approved on a unanimous vote, consists mostly of standard language concerning the manner in which residents can reserve city parks for events, some open to the public and some exclusive to those who have been invited.
But the focus of the half-hour discussion was the fallout from last year’s National Night Out party at Bill Schwartz Park on the corner of Peony Drive and Maison Lane in the Edgewood subdivision. That’s where a political candidate was reportedly told to leave the park, though organizers of the event dispute that claim.
National Night Out is an annual event, supported by police departments and local governments, that was conceived as a way for neighbors to meet each other and meet local police and elected officials, all with the idea of creating a unified community that would serve as a deterrent to crime.
On Aug. 7, as the campaign for two City Council seats heated up, local political rivalries took the spotlight at this particular National Night Out event.
When Amer Hammudi, one of six candidates in the 2018 Tracy City Council race, arrived at the park that night, the event organizers told him he was not welcome, according to people who were there.
Hammudi approached the City Council at its next meeting, Aug. 21, and told the council members that event organizers harassed him and told him not to campaign at the event, and he eventually left out of concern for his personal safety.
Councilwoman Rhodesia Ransom said that once she became aware of the complaint, she expected the council and city attorney to investigate.
“A community member felt they were pushed out of the park aggressively and threatened,” Ransom said, adding that someone was denied a request to put up a campaign booth and another was told to remove a campaign-related shirt. “If someone brings allegations that we’re using community resources to treat people in this community unfairly, it is absolutely my obligation to follow up on that and make sure we set policies in place, and we can assure the public that we won’t let politics attack our individual members of our community.”
Alice English, one of the organizers of that National Night Out event, told the council on Tuesday that nobody was threatened or told to leave, but she acknowledged that Hammudi’s presence at the event created a conflict. She said he had requested a booth the day before, too late to accommodate the request.
“That person that was a candidate for City Council wanted to make it political,” English said, adding that Ransom’s characterizations of the incident were false. “Rhodesia Ransom stated that it was a public event. Well, according to the city attorney, it was always a private (event).”
English added that it appeared afterward that the person on the organizing committee responsible for reserving the park for the night did not check a box on the application that would have designated it as a private event.
“There is a little check mark. Unfortunately it was not marked, but it has always been a private event,” she told the council.
Tracy resident Robert Tanner told the council that he was surprised to hear that a National Night Out event would be a private party.
“A neighborhood that doesn’t have an organization that does that, they may not be able to visit any other National Night Out and meet the police officers and citizens within the other neighborhoods, or the City Council?” Tanner said.
Interim City Attorney Leticia Ramirez replied that many National Night Out gatherings, such as those held in front yards or driveways of homes, are private events.
Mayor Robert Rickman added that there is usually a list of events for National Night Out.
“I’d imagine you could contact our police department,” he said. “The police department oversees it and I imagine they have a list of what’s private and what’s public.”
Ramirez added that last year’s incident was the reason the parks policy had to be updated. The matter originally went before the council March 19, but the council sent it back to the Parks and Recreation Commission, which endorsed a revised policy at its May 2 meeting.
“The justification of the need of this policy was made clear last year because there was a bit of confusion about what is a public event or a private event when it came to National Night Out,” Ramirez said.
The new policy includes a section on how the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that “there shall be no limitation on political, social commentary or religious speech, written or verbal, at any public event.”
The next section specifies that private events are not subject to that rule for as long as organizers of the event have a permit to use the park or in whichever section of the park they have reserved.
“A city park is considered a traditional public forum, which means that the government, the state or the city, are restricted in their ability to limit speech in a traditional public forum. So that’s why our office was involved in reviewing and refining this policy,” Ramirez said.