BY Justin Mitchell
I have now had the misfortune of enduring the unintuitive and uninviting realm of event organizing where city of Oshkosh tentacles of bureaucracy are present, serving as moving hurdles seemingly intent upon slicing down the efforts of an inconsiderable neighborhood event organizer.
I do claim partial responsibility: my expectations for collaboration and partnership with the city were too optimistic. I had anticipated available staff support, eagerness for partnership, acceptance of modern technological processes, and a shared perspective of interest. Naturally staff is busy, with processes to unquestionably follow.
The reasons for organizing the event – a tennis tournament at Menominee Park – seemed many. The courts are in terrible shape, with torn nets, cracks throughout, worn surfaces, and overall neglect. The newly formed Menominee South Neighborhood Association was eager to come together on a project that was fun and healthy while also serving a goal of improving the neighborhood. The city currently claims to be strong encouragers and supporters of neighborhood collaboration and events. And the city, which boasts a dozen public tennis courts, numerous tennis teams, and an indoor facility, does not currently have a city tennis tournament.
So with the support of my neighbors, I proposed a tennis tournament at the Menominee Park courts that would raise funds for improvements to the court. The initial proposal suggested that I would facilitate all event promotions, the neighborhood association would handle all staffing and organizing of the players and programming, and the city would handle funds (we were donating everything to them anyway) and provide usage of the courts.
Of course, things weren’t that easy. Upon connecting with the parks department, who oversees the courts, I was told that they would not be involved in the fund management, and were not going to be a partner. However, we were told that we could reserve the courts, so long as we obtained the necessary insurance coverage and received approval through the events policy.
I was told we needed liability insurance because the event involved physical activity and entailed exclusive use of the courts. Multiple other groups utilize the courts through exclusive use, such as the YMCA for tennis lessons and high schools for tennis games. I inquired whether these groups need insurance. Parks staff explained that these groups do not need to obtain insurance because their event is not a fundraiser. So if we conducted a tournament and kept them money ourselves, we seemingly would not need insurance. If we decide we want to donate the funds to the city to help pay for repairs of torn nets and other issues, we need insurance?
Searches for help with the liability coverage from within the city, including the parks department and community development (who coordinates neighborhood planning) were largely of no help, except for several recommendations from Parks Operation Manager Chad Dallman.
After a setback of about 30 days, we were able to connect with the Mid Morning Kiwanis in Oshkosh, who was helpful, responsive, and supportive. Our partnership with the Kiwanis meant that we had succeeded in obtaining the insurance requirements.
The next step was to complete the twelve-page application for the event and get it submitted to the clerk’s office. After answering the questions – many of which were repetitive – the application was scanned in and emailed over.
A follow up email from the city indicated that the original event application would need to be brought in. To be sure I fully understood, I inquired if there was another application that I missed, or if I needed to bring the paper copy of the exact same thing that I emailed over. After all, you can apply for a mortgage, complete your taxes, and complete a college application online. I was told that the paper copy was needed, and was assured that I could bring in the application anytime during their workday, which coincides with most daytime work schedules.
I brought the application in, during which time it was briefly reviewed. I had to redraw a map of the city’s tennis courts – I suspect in jest because they may have forgotten about them altogether. I was then told I would need to attend a meeting the following week, which was during the workday. When I questioned the need for the meeting, I was told that this meeting was required in case the events committee had any questions regarding the application.
I again questioned the process: “Couldn’t they review the application ahead of time, and if they had questions, then I would attend a meeting?”
I was told no.
I asked, “This meeting is during my work day. Is it possible to meet via video or telephone conference?”
I was told no.
In 2012, I was able to teach a class on international humanitarian aid work through UW Oshkosh that involved a Skype session with Colin Crowley, who was living in Kenya. We met at Beckets, and used the cube room where students engaged Colin in a question and answer session. Colin showed photos, and the communication from across the globe functioned fine.
That wasn’t possible here.
So the meetings were scheduled, and the next step was to identify financial management. Who would handle the money? Who would checks be made out to? Who would the donation check be made from? Following the disappointment that city parks would not serve as fiscal agent for this, my assumption was that certainly the Community Development office would have an avenue for this. They encourage and supposedly support events, and events often involve money. They also encourage the improvements of neighborhoods, which inherently involve money.
In keeping consistent with the city’s response to the event planning so far, community development could not help. According to the city, NeighborWorks was also unable to help. So we decided to skip the formal financial management that should be associated with such an event and just utilize an individual.
I attended the events committee meeting, using vacation time at work to sit through an hour of wait time while other events were being discussed, and 5 minutes of time spent discussing my events.
At the meeting, I repeated the same information committee members had in front of them, to which none had a question. I was reminded that I need proof of insurance, and told that the event proposal just had to go through one more committee before it was approved.
Our application was pretty basic. We didn’t include a proposal for a tent, as that would have involved an additional application and attainment of a special permit. We skipped partnering with an entity such as Glass Nickel to have food available as that would have required additional fees, another application, and another permit, as well as possibly another meeting. We removed all other event-type programming due to the relatively confusing and time-intensive bureaucratic processes. We were just going to play tennis.
With approval from the events committee, it was decided that promotions of the event could begin, a full 60 days after initially planned, and less than two weeks before the event would take place. The late marketing and colder weather meant that it was likely only a few players would participate. Whether we had two to 2000 participants, we had the same paperwork requirements and processes.
In the end, we successfully conducted the tournament. A dozen players participated in the day, which proved to be very wet, but fun. The event raised $275.00 for the support of the Menominee Park tennis courts, a small amount but a sign of commitment to improving the park and neighborhood.
The whole process is probably not too difficult. After all, we succeeded with implementing the tourney. Further, I recognize the importance that a formal events process plays in ensuring that the city is not stuck with large expenses or unreasonable obligations. However, it is clear the existing process is designed for entities that have staff dedicated to satisfying the needs of the city – most likely paid staff working for large-scale event organizers who have the time available during the work day and have the funds to invest upfront before the event is launched.
But for the rest of us, who maybe work an 8-5 job, and who are just looking to put on a small, neighborhood event, this policy is at a minimum excessively burdensome, and more so a significant hurdle that deters, limits, and prevents events. For a city using the slogan “Event City”, the “Event City” should refer to a community that embraces, encourages and celebrates events. For small-scale events and community programs, the city has a far way to go to achieve those goals.
Justin Mitchell is the Editor of the Oshkosh Scene.