As two Houston Police officers walked onstage Tuesday night at Fitzgerald's to address complaints about the city's recently amended noise ordinance, tensions were high, and the crowd silent. Before the police spoke, Fitzgerald's owner and Free Press Houston managing editor Omar Afra explained to the crowd exactly why the meeting had been organized.
"Why we're here is to create a dialogue between us, the city, the officers and the people who are complaining. That's our best bet in moving forward and mitigating these problems," Afra said. "There is a huge economic impact by putting your foot on the neck of the music community."
The ordinance in question gives police officers discretion when issuing citations. While they used to have to acquire a decibel-reading to give tickets, the revision makes it purely a judgment call. The local music community has likened this to getting pulled over and being issued a speeding ticket simply because the officer who thought the driver was going too fast. No proof needed.
"Besides forming a dialogue, the biggest thing we can do is form a constituency," Afra said. "This revision is actually just a change in the existing ordinance... The city failed to invite a musician's group, a musician or a venue owner."
"It is a failure on their part, but it's also a failure on our part," Afra said. "Because we don't have a constituency; we don't have an organization. And in order for us to make progress and have a unified voice, we've got to be able to have this infrastructure... As I see it, at the end of the day, we're all looking for the same thing."
The two police officers onstage were later joined by Christopher Newport from the City of Houston Administration and Regulatory Affairs department.
"I think we all need to acknowledge the fact that this is a lot of fun for a lot of people, and I think it allows... a lot of people in this room to go out and make a living," Newport said, "But we also have to acknowledge that what we have to address in city hall is the situation where there is one bar next to someone's house, then there's two, then three, then four, then five."
"Nobody at the city wants to deal with people being upset with this problem," Newport continued, "And HPD officers, I assure you, have many other things they would rather be doing with their time than responding to the 23rd noise complaint of the night. But there are thousands of complaints, guys. And up until tonight, it's all be from one side."
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Newport organized a meeting for January 24, from 7 to 9 p.m., at City Hall adding that, given Tuesday night's turnout, the location may have to change. He provided his contact information and told the crowd to email him for updates.
"It has rarely been the case, in my experience, working with these things, that everyone is happy with what comes out on the other side of this process, but I think everyone will contribute, and I think that we're going to be better off talking to each other," Newport said. "And I think we're going to have an improved product."
While many in attendance were clearly upset, the overall feeling was one of hope, and everyone seemed in agreement that the meeting was a solid first step toward making a change.
"What these neighbors are looking for, what these officers are looking for, and what we're looking for is objective, verifiable, enforceable criteria to sound," Afra said. "You've got a threshold for how much you can drink and drive; you've got a threshold for how fast you can drive. And the old way of just using a decibel reading has proved to just not hold water."