County approves protest ordinance ahead of DNC

The Union County Board of Commissioners voted Monday night, Aug. 9, to approve a proposed ordinance that limits activities like rallies and protests on county property.

The ordinance, organized by the Union County Sheriff’s Office, would prohibit camping; possession of obstruction devices; attaching oneself to another person, building, vehicle, or fixture; possession and dispersal of noxious substances; and kindling bonfires.

The vote comes on the heels of nearby Charlotte, Matthews and Mint Hill all passing similar ordinances, and Charlotte having to work to evict people from camping on property in the city’s uptown during a “Occupy Wall Street”-style event that spanned weeks.

In Union County’s new ordinance, “obstruction devices” are defined as “a device commonly known as a ‘lock box’ or ‘sleeping dragon’ or any of the components of such a device including, without limitation, pipes, tubes, wire handcuffs, chains, carabiners, or padlocks, or containers either weighted or not.”

Noxious substances include “any substance that is harmful or destructive or foul or offensive to human beings, such as, without limitation, garbage, trash, refuse, animal parts or fluids, manure, urine, feces, or other organic waste by-products,” according to the ordinance. That was one problem Charlotte faced during the weeks-long Occupy movement, as those camping tried to find a place to dispose of their waste.

The ordinance allows the sheriff’s office to establish police lines and barricades on county property to “preserve the public peace, arrest offenders, and to protect the rights of persons and property,” according to the ordinance.

This new set of limitations was introduced back on July 16 and finally passed at the meeting  Monday. An earlier attempt to pass an ordinance failed because that vote had to be unanimous and was not.

According to a press release from the Office of the Commissioners and Manager, officials feel the ordinance is necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public and to preserve public order while preserving aesthetics, cleanliness and sanitation of county property.

When asked if recent activity in other cities and counties, such as the Occupy movement, had any effect on the decision to create the ordinance for Union County, Sheriff Eddie Cathey said everything was taken into consideration.

“We realized there was no protection for county property and if there were events that could cause safety issues for the citizen trying to conduct county business, this would give us another tool to control problems that might arise.”

The release from the Office of the Commissioners and Manager stated that activities in other cities and counties across the country have resulted in public facilities and properties being taken over, not only by peaceful protest groups but radical direct-action organizations and violent anarchist groups whose expressed objective is to disrupt the operation of or deny access to these public properties and facilities. The new ordinance is meant to address these types of activities.

The release also stated that the ordinance is not meant to curtail peaceful protests, but to prevent or stop conduct that might interfere with citizens’ ability to access and enjoy public property.

Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jerry Simpson said that the ordinance is directly related to activity in Charlotte.

“The limiting of activities was requested by the sheriff to prevent situations similar to what occurred in Charlotte in recent months and the Occupy movement,” Simpson said. “[It’s] OK to protest; no camping out.”

Cathey said he feels the ordinance is necessary and will be to the benefit of safety in Union County.

“It gives us a way to stop unwanted abuse of the county property and help keep with the normal business of county government,” Cathey said.

For Cathey, the ultimate aim is always county safety.

“[The goal is] public safety and keep daily operations of county business as safe as possible.”

Matthews passed a similar ordinance in late July, adopting new rules for parades and picketing, following Mint Hill’s lead.

Matthews’ ordinance requires people wanting to host a parade or picket in town to follow a new set of rules and pay a $100 fee.

The ordinance in Matthews prohibits groups from picketing in front of a private residence or interfering with vehicular and pedestrian traffic on streets and sidewalks, and forbids people from unlawfully obstructing, impeding or interfering with any person, vehicle or animal taking part in the parade.

According to Matthews Police Chief Rob Hunter, the decision was, in part, a way for the town to prepare for situations that may arise with September’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, but the ordinance also was necessary to protect both individuals’ constitutional rights and the town’s ability to maintain the peace.

Mint Hill passed its ordinance in May, which also banned overnight camping on town-owned property. Unlike Matthews, Mint Hill’s ordinance does not charge a fee.

Officials with the Democratic National Convention expect thousands of people to come to the region for the early September events. That is expected to include many protestors, and events – both pro-convention and anti-convention – are not expected to remain within the Charlotte city limits.

 

Abbie Bennett, abbie@unioncountyweekly.com

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