People enjoy the nice weather while keeping their distance in Riverfront Park on Thursday, April 9. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The Salem City Council wants the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board to provide policy recommendations on parks usage and permitting following a controversial right-wing event at Riverfront Park on May 1.

The recommendations could come as Salem resumes permitting for events after nearly a year, but city staff have said permits can’t keep groups from using the parks.

Councilor Vanessa Nordyke, who proposed the motion, told councilors her intention was to bring up examples of some of the things troubling the community.

“The bottom line is, we need public input for public spaces,” she said. “People are going to want to have a say in whether to allow alcohol in our parks. And so on. And policing recommendations. We’ve heard a lot of concern about the police being highly visible and some events and seemingly invisible at other events. And there are a lot of policy decisions that are wrapped up around that,” Nordyke said.

She was referencing a May 1 event in which members of the Proud Boys provided “security” for an event at Riverfront Park and escorted at least one Salem resident out of the public space.

The event was billed as a gun rights rally and also included speakers criticizing Covid restrictions, masking and discussing local school board elections.

Some community members noted a lack of visible police presence at Riverfront Park during the May 1 event. Salem police said there were 30 officers assigned there and there were no reported injuries or arrests made.

The council unanimously voted to have the board review and identify best practices for general parks usage and permitting for special events and a present a memorandum of its policy recommendations to council. The council can adopt ordinances or policies guiding park administration, but actual administration is left to the city manager and public works director under Salem law.

Councilors Jim Lewis and Virginia Stapleton said they had concerns about the legality of any recommendations addressing parks concerns.

“I’m trying to feel out if this is reactionary to a couple of instances and what are our risks as a city going into it. Those are the things I’m wrestling with right now,” Stapelton said.

Last summer, the city stopped issuing permits for events at city parks, citing a lack of staff to enforce needed Covid rules.

A daily church gathering called Salem Awakening was refunded their permitting fees last June and told they could continue using the park without a permit.

Without permitting in place, groups couldn’t reserve a specific location or plug in to the city's power.

Peter Fernandez, public works director, told councilors the state has asked the city not to issue permits during the pandemic.

“We’ve made a deliberate choice to not issue permits and we’ve seen unfortunate circumstances from some of those events,” he said adding that it’s not indicative of how the city will handle events post-Covid.

As Covid restrictions near an end, the city is planning to begin permitting events for Memorial Day weekend.

City Manager Steve Powers told councilors Monday an error on the city website listed the permitting date as May 1 – the day of the event in Riverfront Park.

Powers said as the city begins permitting again, they are making a distinction between public and private events. Any public event will require a Covid safety plan to be reviewed by city staff and the emergency operations center, he said.

But City Attorney Dan Atchison cautioned that permitting wouldn’t prevent events like what happened on May 1, because the park is a public space.

“Even if we go to a permitting system on Memorial Day, they’re still may be groups of people who conduct events in the park without a permit. And our ability to stop them is fairly limited,” Atchison said.

He said the city could issue a citation if they construct a stage against city code, but it isn’t a jailable offense.

“It’s not so easy to just say you can’t do this and we’re going to physically stop you from doing this,” Atchison said.

On Thursday, the Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board is getting a report on what happened in Riverfront Park on May 1. The meeting will be on YouTube.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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