A Mobile City Council committee took no action on an amendment to the noise ordinance public safety officials said had the potential to make traffic noise downtown illegal.
The amendment, proposed by Councilman Fred Richardson, would enforce a single requirement on both residential and commercial areas of the city. As it currently reads, the ordinance allows for noise up to 85 decibels during the day and 50 decibels at night in a residential area without a waiver. In the downtown district, the ordinance maintains any noise that can be heard from 25 feet away is illegal without a waiver.
Richardson initially wanted to amend the ordinance to exempt peaceful protesters from needing a waiver to produce amplified sound through a bullhorn. He said the council’s legal team decided the current amendment would be an easier way to accomplish that goal.
Richardson’s action comes after a group of protesters in Mobile were approached by police and told to stop using amplified sound, even though the group had received a noise ordinance waiver the same day from the council.
The incident resulted in one arrest for drawing with chalk on the pavilion near the former site of the Admiral Raphael Semmes statue downtown, but Chief Lawrence Battiste said his office hadn’t received the waiver before officers confronted the protesters. Once the MPD was notified of the waiver, police allowed the protest to continue.
Battiste and Barber both reiterated that no one was arrested that day for a violation of the noise ordinance. The man arrested for the chalk incident was never formally charged, as a magistrate refused to sign a warrant.
Public Safety Director James Barber said he was concerned about the enforcement of the change, given that the 25 foot rule in the downtown district is applied over and above the ambient sounds of traffic and other business in the district. When applied strictly, Barber said, ambient noise produced during slower times downtown would be in violation of the amended ordinance.
More specifically, Battiste gave councilors decibel readings of ambient noises on a Sunday night downtown. All of the locations tested by the Mobile Police Department were above the 50-decibel threshold, Battiste said.
When asked before the meeting if the 25-foot threshold in addition to ambient downtown noise was typically louder than the 50 to 85-decibel threshold the amendment pointed to, Barber said ‘yes.”
Instead of the amendment, Barber suggested increasing the distance outlined in the law from 25 feet to 30 feet.
Despite the concerns from Barber and Battiste, Richardson still attempted to move forward with the amendment, demonstrating that if he spoke softly off microphone while inside a quiet council chamber, he could be heard 25 feet away.
“She can hear you Fred because there aren’t 50 cars going by or trucks,” Councilman Joel Daves said.
At the committee meeting, councilors learned from Battiste it is illegal to produce amplified sound from a bullhorn during a protest without a waiver of the noise ordinance, but not in any other scenario.
“What I hear you saying Chief is that if I walk out on Government Street and use a bullhorn it’s OK, but if 20 people are with me, I can’t use it,” Daves said.
Battiste said, “yes sir.”
Despite Richardson, chairman of the public safety committee, moving on a recommendation to take the amendment to a full vote of the council, committee members Councilman John Williams and Councilwoman Gina Gregory did not second the motion. Instead both councilors wanted to do more to rewrite the ordinance and possibly simplify the language.
Williams acknowledged the debate came about because of “less-than-perfect enforcement” in the first place.
“We have to write it in such a way that people can say if you’re disturbing somebody and you don’t have permission you’re disturbing the peace and we should ask you to stop,” Williams said. “If there’s something we can do to make enforcement easier than we should do it. We need reasonable enforcement and people need to be reasonable. I don’t think an ordinance will fix that.”
Gregory added that the council should go back and look at the ordinance to make it “better and more enforceable.”
“Right now if our process is working and when we have a quick turnaround we need to try to do better,” Gregory said.
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