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Updated: Friday, 20 Jul 2012, 2:32 PM CDT
Published : Thursday, 19 Jul 2012, 6:00 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - Over the span of one weekend this November, as many as 300,000 racing fans are expected to swarm Travis County for the area’s inaugural Formula One event.
A crowd that size would certainly qualify as a “mass gathering.” But a top county official acknowledged that the county did not fully follow the state law requiring that a mass-gathering permit be obtained before allowing such an event to go forward.
"What that would have done was kill the race,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe. “And after you invest tens of millions of dollars, to me that was unreasonable."
State lawmakers passed the Mass Gatherings Act in 1971 to address big crowds like the one expected for the first F1 weekend. The law – which has been amended in subsequent legislative sessions – is supposed to help catch and correct health and safety problems well in advance.
The law technically applies to Formula One, because it is expected to attract “more than 2,500 persons.” It requires organizers to submit an official application for the permit, including important items like: a financial statement, a plan to limit overcrowding, steps to maintain sanitation and health, traffic control, medical and nursing care and supervision of minors.
Permitting requires an investigation and approval by the county health department, sheriff and fire marshal. All three technically signed off, though Fire Marshal Hershel Lee indicated in a letter to county commissioners – who are responsible for either denying or granting the application – that complete approval of the event would be premature.
“I cannot say that the facility meets the requirements of Travis County Fire Code, because the site and facility are still under construction,” Lee wrote. “I anticipate that upon completion of construction and subsequent to our final inspection, that the site and buildings will be suitable.”
Violations of the act have occurred through the years. An infamous example was just north of Travis County in 1975 – Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in Liberty Hill .
The concert event – which included acts like Kris Kristofferson and the Pointer Sisters – racked up a fine due to overcrowding, when the crowd swelled well beyond original estimates. Some reports say 90,000 people attended, but organizers had never applied for a mass-gathering permit.
The act states: “A person may not promote a mass gathering without a permit issued under this chapter.” According to the legal wording, “promote” includes organizing, managing, financing or holding an event.
There are criminal penalties set forth for people violating the act. Such an offense is considered a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $1,000, up to 90 days in jail or both.
Past violations and lawsuits
Records show Travis County has had at least three violations, potential violations or lawsuits related to the act in the past. In 2001, the Travis County Attorney – who is charged with prosecuting such matters – sued Ark Entertainment (aka Ark Music), seeking to enjoin the company from holding a race on the eastern side of the county.
County officials said the fire marshal’s office has given some informal warnings, but two events have popped up in recent history as possible violations: the Music Ranch in 2012 and the Texas Freedom Fest in 2011. Both did not ultimately receive fines, as they either met the mass gathering permit requirements upon further inspection or canceled the event altogether.
The county was supposed to hold F1 to the same standard by making organizers obtain the permit before publicly promoting their event. Local attorney Bill Aleshire – who was Travis County judge for 12 years and dealt with his share of mass-gathering applications – said he is “concerned about the special treatment Formula One has received.”
Clearly, organizers have been “promoting” the Grand Prix for months... even years. They announced the event in May 2010, followed by the public reveal of business mogul Red McCombs as a principle investor later that summer.
Early promotion of F1 in Austin
The website of the Circuit of The Americas – organizers’ official entity – shows the first official press release distributed in April 2011, followed by their first YouTube video posted online a month later. That timeline is evidence of promotion well ahead of when the commissioners’ court granted the permit in June 2012.
"The question would be: Are they going to be prosecuted?” Aleshire posed. “Or are we just not going to enforce this part of the law?"
In an email, CoTA officials told KXAN they applied for the permit "as soon as we received confirmation from the County Commissioners in March 2012 that one was required for our Grand Prix."
“We had received different points of view on the issue based on previously held, large-scale events in Travis County and what had been required for them in the past,” wrote Ali Putnam, CoTA spokeswoman. “Once we received county confirmation that we did
need to apply for a mass gathering permit, we applied in April and followed the process outlined by County Commissioners.”
The 'letter of the law'
Biscoe admits F1 was not the only one not sticking to the law through this permitting process -- the County bypassed the timeline, too.
“If we had followed the letter of the law, I would not have granted (the permit),” Biscoe said."
By the time organizers applied for the mass gathering permit, they been working with the county for months. Records show other permits issued as early as year ago, including those for the site, water supply, building, underground fire line, fire alarm and sprinkler system.
Biscoe said the county considered the legal requirements of the act but saw “steady accomplishment” of various phases along the way.
“I agree that CoTA probably began promoting the event before obtaining a permit,” Biscoe said. “However, county departments and staff were working with representatives each step of the way.”
Biscoe explained that the county believes the law “does not cover this kind of event, the way it’s worded.”
“That really was put in place for concerts in areas where there are no permanent structures,” he said.
Although the wording does not directly say it applies to “concerts” and not “permanent structures,” the act does state the permit application must include “the name address of each performer who has agreed to appear at the mass gathering and the name and address of each performer’s agent” and “a description of each agreement between the promoter and a performer.”
A possible legislative remedy
When the next Texas legislative session begins in January – two months after the first race – Biscoe said he intends to make sure Travis County is at the Capitol, working to clarify the law.
“Well, I don't intend to do it, but I intend to see that it's done,” he added.
The county attorney’s office said there are no plans to prosecute F1, and Biscoe said the county will continue to monitor the group’s progress in the next four months to make sure there are no problems.
Circuit of The Americas told KXAN it has has no more to say about the issue or any possible violation.
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