What the Flock Are They Thinking?

You may not be aware of this, but when we first launched Red Shtick Magazine over two and a half years ago, our premier issue coincided with the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade. This was not happenstance: We deliberately hurried our launch date so that the first issue came out on the same weekend. In fact, it took just over three months to go from conception to copies hitting the stands.We did this after realizing that we had the chance to kick off the only satirical, irreverent humor magazine in Baton Rouge on the one day of the year that hundreds of thousands of people in the conservative Capital City have license to be openly and unashamedly satirical and irreverent. We simply couldn’t let such a poetic opportunity pass us by.So when I heard about a proposed parade ordinance that would not only encumber all parades in the parish with inordinate insurance requirements, but might also move the Spanish Town parade route off Spanish Town Road, I became very interested. I couldn’t believe that the city-parish was looking to screw around with the biggest (and, might I say, best) Mardi Gras parade in Baton Rouge by making the krewes get cost-prohibitive amounts of insurance and move the parade from the very place where it all started.The original draft ordinance proposed by Councilman Darrell Ourso sets some safety measures for all krewes to follow. Most of them make a lot of sense to protect the float riders and the spectators, like restricting the size of the floats and banning glass throws. Some restrictions may raise some eyebrows, like banning smoking on the floats, as well as the use of silly string by either participants or viewers. I guess the rationale is that costumes and float decorations might catch fire, and some people might be deathly allergic to silly string. (Don’t ask me – I’m not a dermatologist.)

It’s when you get to the part about insurance that red flags go off. Right now, parade organizations are required to carry one million dollars of insurance per occurrence with a one million dollar aggregate. (Don’t ask me what that means – I’m not an insurance agent.) The proposed ordinance, in its original form, states, “Each parade organization, float or truck float, shall carry a minimum limit of liability insurance of one million dollars per occurrence…with a three million dollar aggregate.”

I, along with hundreds of other people, interpreted that to mean that each individual float had to be insured for a million dollars. Spanish Town parade organizers claimed that such a requirement would increase the cost of the parade by $40,000! Such a requirement would all but kill the Southdowns and St. PatrickÂ’s Day parades.

Since then, Ourso has amended the language of the ordinance to clarify that the insurance requirement applies only to each parade as a whole, not for each float. He said the way people were interpreting it was different from what he intended. Apparently, “float or truck float” was meant as an adjective describing the types of parades that would fall under the new insurance rules, not as nouns that would also be required to be insured for a million.

If there’s one thing we should all be diligent about, it’s not leaving anything, especially laws, to interpretation. After all, this is the same state whose Supreme Court said that, while “gambling” may still be prohibited by the Louisiana Constitution, “gaming” is perfectly OK. This is also the state whose head of alcohol permitting appears to be on a personal jihad to fine any bar where the patrons dare even pull out a deck of cards, even though most law experts agree that his fatwa is based solely on his own interpretation of the law.

I want to be careful not to paint Councilman Ourso as the bad guy. After speaking with him about his motivation behind the ordinance, I can understand where he was coming from. In fact, he sent me an email that explains the history behind the ordinance:

“In his 2006 budget last year, Mayor Holden earmarked a new income stream of $100,000 for Special Events & Parade Permit Fees. After hearing great concern from parade reps as to the thousands of dollars per parade in a proposed parade permit fee, I successfully had the Mayor's Office pull the proposed ordinance which would have charged these excessive permit fees to Mardi Gras krewes and other walks and footraces in our community. The BRPD [Baton Rouge Police Department] previously considered these fees about 5 years ago but that measure was also halted.

At that time, I determined that the best way to avoid the permit fees was to work toward some common ground with the BRPD and implement safety standards for all current and future parades to follow.”

So basically, Ourso saw the writing on the wall and tried to get involved to prevent the parades from being subjected to permit fees desired by the police department. Ourso also concedes that our city’s parades are “a positive force for the quality of life in BR as well as an economic driver.” I couldn’t agree more.

Well, that takes care of the insurance deal and Ourso’s motivation, but what about the routes? According to Ourso, representatives of both BRPD and the Department of Public Works (DPW) attended an ordinance committee meeting, where they expressed a desire to move the parade off Spanish Town Road and Third Street. They cited “many overriding public safety factors.”

I donÂ’t understand it. Spanish Town is one of the safest parades in the city and has been rolling merrily along since Reagan was shot, and the only injuries that did occur have been on streets other than Spanish Town Road and Third Street. Now, BRPD and DPW want to move the parade off those two streets because theyÂ’re too dangerous?

IÂ’m not the only one who has a problem with this. The parade organizers and the Spanish Town neighborhood association are unequivocally opposed to this proposed route alteration. In addition, Davis Rhorer at the Downtown Development District chimed in to voice his concern when he learned about Third Street being cut out of the route. ItÂ’s little wonder, too, given that Third Street has been considered the centerpiece of a new and vibrant Downtown Baton Rouge.

Any time IÂ’ve ever attended the Spanish Town parade, I always caught it on either Spanish Town Road (near the Capitol Grocery for easy access to jambalaya and beer) or on Third Street (for easy access to shelter when it rains like it did this year). In my opinion, these are the best places to catch itÂ…period!

A Spanish Town parade that doesnÂ’t roll through Spanish Town would be like Journey without Steve Perry, or Chicago without Peter Cetera, or Van Halen without Diamond Dave. You might try to spin it and say itÂ’s just as good and has the same flavor and soul, but it would just wind up being one of those hey-remember-when-that-didnÂ’t-suck things.

In fact, there are a lot of examples of really cool things in this city becoming uncool rather quickly via micromanagement by the city-parish. Does anybody remember when Fest For All was a happening party? How many people even remember that we once had a Blues Festival that kicked ass? And what about Bonne Fête? It was awesome for about five minutes, but after the first year, it went straight down the crapper. Do you want to take a guess as to who did the flushing?

As for where the parade would originate if BRPD and DPW got their way, Ourso suggested the area around DOTD headquarters and the GovernorÂ’s Mansion. He says assembling along the Capitol Access Road would provide plenty of open spaces and numerous access routes for riders to get to their floats instead of making them traverse streets that are closed hours before the parade.

Whenever I go to the Spanish Town parade, my wife and I get there a couple of hours ahead of time. This allows us to get a decent parking spot and affords us the opportunity to check out all the float decorations. The floats themselves are usually better than actually catching stuff during the parade. The krewes spend weeks donning them with images and messages that lampoon the powers that be, but once the parade starts rolling, itÂ’s all but impossible to appreciate their work because youÂ’re too busy trying to catch stuff.

Now letÂ’s imagine that the parade would assemble by the GovernorÂ’s Mansion. You could walk over there to check out the floats before the parade, but what happens when nature calls? I doubt Governor Blanco would appreciate hundreds of people knocking on her door to use her bathroom.

What about all the merchants on Spanish Town, Third Street, and the rest of the parade route? Think of all the lost income because parade goers who want to check out the floats would be several blocks away in an area void of retailers.

And if this is all being proposed in the name of safety, assembling the Spanish Town parade in full view of the GovernorÂ’s Mansion curve on I-110 is probably the last thing you want to do. People canÂ’t seem to keep from running into each other right there as it is. Imagine whatÂ’ll happen when theyÂ’re distracted by dozens of giant pink flamingos and over-inflated condoms.

“What the hell is that, Ethel?” (BAM!) Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a ten-car pileup. Oh yeah, that’s much safer.

To Ourso’s credit, he did say, “It is my desire to establish set routes for parades in our community based on the traditional routes of the current parades (Christmas, St. Patty, Mardi Gras, etc.) and to preserve these traditional routes, as best as possible, in the ordinance.” He goes on to say, though, “the BRPD and DPW must sign-off and approve the routes for Parade Permits.”

The bottom line is that, in order to protect the current route from being altered in the future by the whims of BRPD or DPW, it should be stipulated in the ordinance. But if Spanish Town Road and Third Street are to be included in the route within the ordinance, the public outcry to do so must outweigh the voice of those who wish to remove those two thoroughfares from the parade.

The Spanish Town parade is unique to Baton Rouge. ItÂ’s a homegrown celebration unlike any other Mardi Gras parade anywhere that attracts people from all over the country, and even some foreign ones. While theyÂ’re here, those people spend lots of money (resulting in more than sufficient tax revenues to cover the costs of police overtime and cleanup), not to mention they have a great time while theyÂ’re here. Of course, thatÂ’s assuming they didnÂ’t suffer life-threatening chemical burns from the silly string.