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Soldotna recommends clarifications, changes as part of park review

Sabine Poux

The City of Soldotna has started a review of its park policies, including changes that would clear up what is and isn’t allowed in public spaces, following an outcry over a Pride month performance in Soldotna Creek Park last summer.

Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said it’s important not to put policies in place that would create arbitrary or legally indefensible rules. But at a work session with the city’s seven-member Parks and Recreation Advisory Board last week, she said some clarification on the city’s policies would be good.

“We are restarting the conversation,” Queen said. “So this will be the first of a few meetings, both at this board level and ultimately at the city council, where these will be discussed, considered and some solutions put in place.”

The review comes six months after the city took heat both online and through hours of testimony over a drag performance in Soldotna Creek Park. Critics said the dancing was lewd and inappropriate for the public park, while others and representatives from the city said the performer’s right to expression was protected under the law and in city code.

But the city agreed to take another look at its decade-old reservation policies, as well as consider changes to city code that would clarify those rights, and what counts as inappropriate. At the Jan. 5 advisory board meeting — rescheduled after an earlier meeting was postponed by snow — Queen and Parks and Rec Director Andrew Carmichael outlined a few recommended changes to code for the advisory board to consider which they hoped would address some of the concerns brought up at previous meetings.

One recommendation was to add specific standards into municipal code outlining when park permits should be issued.

City code already outlines some standards, like that a permit shall be issued when an activity won’t incite violence.

Queen recommended adding a standard that said a permit should be issued when “denial of a permit would violate the constitutional rights of the applicant.” Another proposed standard would say a permit can be issued when the activity won’t include “disorderly” or “obscene” content — which she noted would also require expanded definitions in municipal code.

“We actually need to go through and describe, in very clear terms, what that means,” Queen said. She said that would require parsing through, in detail, what parts of the body and what kinds of content would be considered offensive.

The city recommended removing the standard that said the city should issue a permit when the proposed activity will not “unreasonably interfere with or detract from the general public enjoyment of the park.” That standard came up at the city council meetings last summer.

“That is a very vague standard that’s not been defined,” Queen said. “And we as staff should not be in a position of inserting our own judgment into something of this magnitude. So legally, it puts the city at risk, if we were to deny a permit and cite this section.”

At a city level, she recommended adding a “lewdness ordinance” that would apply to the Soldotna’s public spaces. That would be part of the city’s larger municipal code and would allow the city to act when behaviors cross a certain threshold. Queen said that ordinance would go before the city council, not the park board, since it would apply city wide.

Carmichael, the parks and rec director, also outlined some operational changes that would make it easier for people to avoid events that make them uncomfortable. He said the city is considering an updated reservation policy and event calendar that would include more information, both online and on physical signs, about what is coming up at the park. He also recommended “no-event” days that wouldn’t have any scheduled events at the park at all.

“We’re looking to gain more information about the event so we can better disseminate that event information to people who want to know what’s at the park before [they] go,” Carmichael said.

Testimony at previous meetings has grown heated. But in the 20 minutes left for testimony at last week’s meeting, all commenters thanked the city for its work on the policies.

Penny Vadla, who chairs the advisory board, said it’s important that the city’s parks are inclusive of everyone.

“I think we need to really take a look at all this information, to look at the comments that have been made by the people who we work for, and take into consideration everything they’ve done and move forward,” she said.

The board didn't take action on the recommendations at last week's meeting. Queen said the advisory board will meet again Jan. 24, when they could consider the recommendations as action items and take comment from the public.

Queen said any changes would go before the Soldotna City Council for approval, with additional chances for public comment. You can see the city's presentation and read the recommended park policies here.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.