A virtual and physical schedule of park events, clear definitions of sexual and disorderly conduct in city code and event black-out days are among the changes Soldotna is proposing to the city’s park policies in the wake of backlash to a 2022 drag performance held at Soldotna Creek Park.
Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen, Soldotna City Attorney Brooks Chandler and Parks & Recreation Director Andrew Carmichael met with members of the Soldotna Parks & Recreation Advisory Board and the public during a work session held on Jan. 5 to go over the proposed changes, which have been in the works for months.
A comprehensive presentation provided by the city during that work session explained the city’s approach to reviewing existing city code and park policies, detailed considerations made as administration brainstormed changes and presented recommendations for consideration by board and city council members.
Members of the public called for Soldotna to review its park policies following a drag performance held at Soldotna Creek Park as part of an LGBTQ+ Pride event last summer. A video circulated widely on social media showed Anchorage drag queen Brenden Badd twerking and doing backflips in what appears to be a miniskirt and thong as part of the performance.
In the months that followed, Soldotna City Council members heard hours of testimony from community members across several months of meetings. Some felt the performance was obscene and called for changes to how the city grants permits for use of the park, while others said dancing is protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
At a city council meeting last July, Soldotna City Attorney Brooks Chandler said Soldotna’s existing policies would not have allowed the city to deny Pride in the Park a permit for the use of the Soldotna Creek Park stage for a drag show. Chandler in an administrative report further wrote that the city should be careful while reviewing its policies so as to not censor unpopular speech.
In crafting changes to the reservation policy and city code, Queen said the city considered various principles: the city’s public spaces should be safe and welcoming; Soldotna Creek Park is a public forum that supports non-city groups; and city policies should be clear and easy to understand, but also legally defensible and practical to enforce.
City administration is recommending the city launch an online event calendar that would provide a day-by-day look at what events are being held in Soldotna Creek Park. That online portal, similar to one used by Fairbanks, would allow event organizers to upload information from their permit application as a way to provide more information about what the event will entail.
The virtual calendar would be in addition to signage placed at Soldotna Creek Park, which would show immediate upcoming events and link to the virtual calendar. The city is also proposing the implementation of “black-out days,” or days when the park would not be available for event reservations.
The administrative changes to how the city notifies people of park events would be in addition to new city code addressing lewd conduct and when the city will issue a park use permit.
The city is proposing that the definitions of “disorderly conduct” and “facility” be expanded and that “sexual conduct” is defined with specified anatomical areas and sexual activities within Soldotna Municipal Code. A new “lewdness” ordinance would apply citywide and would prohibit and define lewd behavior as well as define “harmful to minors” and “obscene.”
The city recommends adding to city code language saying that the city shall issue a permit when the denial of a permit would violate the constitutional rights of the applicant. A permit shall also be issued if the proposed activity is not expected to include disorderly or obscene conduct and if the applicant’s previous permitted use of facilities has followed city rules.
Queen said discussing the specific code language needed to define sexual conduct and other terms related to lewd behavior must be detailed and specific, and could make people uncomfortable.
“For example, it would not be sufficient legally or administratively to just use language like ‘nudity is not allowed’ or ‘naked,’ we actually need to go through and describe in very clear terms what that means,” Queen said.
All who testified during the Jan. 5 work session thanked the city for their work on the park policy.
Soldotna resident Joshua Scilzo, who has testified at multiple council meetings since the drag performance about the city’s park policies, thanked city administrators for their work on the review, which he said was “exactly what he was hoping to hear.”
“We get that we’re not all gonna see eye to eye about things,” Scilzo said. “This isn’t about suppressing anyone’s beliefs or anything else. It’s about drawing boundaries that pretty much we all, I think, agree on. I appreciate so much the work that’s gone into this.”
Soldotna Parks & Recreation Advisory Board Chair Penny Vadla said the city should focus on inclusivity rather than exclusivity when considering changes to park policies.
“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, and take into consideration everything that they’ve done, and move forward, because we have a lovely community,” Vadla said.
At the Parks & Recreation Advisory Board’s next meeting on Jan. 24, members will consider a draft of proposed changes to the city’s park policies as well as a draft of proposed administrative changes. Members will, at that meeting, deliberate and then forward their recommendations to the Soldotna City Council.
Soldotna City Council members would then consider for final approval the proposed policy changes and updated park reservation policy during meetings in February and March. Any changes to Soldotna’s municipal code must be approved by the city council.
The Soldotna Parks & Recreation Advisory Board meeting can be streamed on the city’s website at soldotna.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.