STREET PERFORMERS at the Third Street Promenade, pier and Santa Monica Transit Mall will still need to have permits, but city officials are looking to lessen the requirements at public sidewalks. (Argonaut photo by Vince Echavaria)

Though street performers in Santa Monica would still be required to obtain permits to put on a show in three of the most popular tourist areas of the city, they soon may not have such a regulation on most sidewalks.

The Santa Monica City Council voted Tuesday, October 13th to ask staff to narrow the permit requirements of the ordinance regarding street performance to only the Santa Monica Pier, Third Street Promenade and Transit Mall, and not include other public streets.

The permit requirements have been in place as part of a regulatory system limiting the time, place and manner of public expression to help ensure public safety in crowded areas. The regulations have been enforced on the pier, promenade, Transit Mall, which includes sections of Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway near the promenade, and on city sidewalks.

But following a recent court decision in Seattle, Santa Monica officials chose to re-evaluate if such a permitting system for street performance needed to be changed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in Berger vs. Seattle that the City of Seattle’s performance permit requirement violated the First Amendment.

Santa Monica staff noted that the facts of the Seattle case differ significantly from the city’s situation but the issue could call into question the legality of Santa Monica’s permit system. Staff recommended that the council consider retaining, modifying or eliminating the current permit requirement.

Several performers who put on acts in popular sites such as the promenade and pier told the council that they were in favor of keeping the permits because they help maintain order in the crowded areas and limit competition amongst the performers.

“I stand behind the idea of having a permit. It is required to maintain some bit of sanity throughout the city,” performer Walt Davis told the council members.

Others explained that while permits may not be essential to keep the peace at other parts of the city, like sidewalks, it would create “chaos” if permits were not required in the high trafficked areas of the pier, promenade and Transit Mall.

But performer Vincent Garofalo argued that many may prefer needing permits, but the issue is “not a popularity contest” and he believes it is time to drop the permit requirement. He suggested that it would only take one performer who claims that certain rights are violated under the system to file a lawsuit against the city.

“Whether some performers like it or not, it is a constitutional and civil issue,” he said. “I think it’s time to move forward without the permit.”

Referring to the differences between the Seattle case and Santa Monica, staff said the rules applied to street performers at the Seattle Center, described as a “roughly 80-acre expanse of public space” home to the Space Needle and other venues. Officials noted that Santa Monica does not require performance permits at its parks and the areas where permits are needed are much smaller than the Seattle Center.

Bill Tucker, chair of the Bayside District board, which manages downtown, also spoke of the differences with the Seattle situation and said the board recommended that council retain the permitting process for the pier, promenade and Transit Mall.

Ben Franz-Knight of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation said his board also believes that the permitting system fairly deals with street performer regulations and should be kept in place.

Council members said they were “heartened” at the strong support by performers for maintaining the permit regulations at the highly popular areas. Some council members said they were primarily concerned with public safety involving street performance and wanted to ensure that order is kept in places that draw large crowds.

“For me this is largely a safety issue,” said Mayor Ken Genser prior to recommending permit requirements at only the pier, promenade and Transit Mall. “These are not only extremely congested areas but physically constrained areas.”