St. George leaders reject permit for another drag show and a food event

Both applications were denied, city officials said, because the applicants violated a city ordinance that bans organizers from advertising special events until they receive final approval and a permit from the city.

(St. George City via YouTube) Chris Keele speaks out against drag at last Thursday's St George City Council meeting. The black and white sticker on his Oath Keepers Utah shirt reads Protect Utah's Kids.

St. George • No matter how flawed or unevenly applied they may be, ordinances are meant to be followed and obedience should be enforced. That was the rationale behind the St. George City Council’s 4-1 vote Tuesday to uphold the city’s denial of permits for an all-ages drag event at a municipal park and a food festival planned for downtown Main Street.

Mitski Avalox, CEO of Southern Utah Drag Stars, was at the meeting to appeal the denial of the Allies & Community Drag Show Festival planned for April 28 at J.C. Snow Park in St. George. Indigo Klabanoff, with Seed Inc.’s St. George Market Small Business Incubator, weighed in on the city’s rejection of her application to host a Taste of Southern Utah Food Festival on Oct. 28 on downtown Main Street.

Both applications were denied, city officials said, because the applicants violated a city ordinance that bans organizers from advertising special events until they receive final approval and a permit from the city.

In appealing the ruling, Avalox and Klabanoff argued the rule was not enforced until recently. They pointed to several special events — a block party, Spring Tour of St. George, among others — that were approved despite organizers advertising before they received a permit.

“Why has the city chosen to favor some groups … while you deny others who do the same?” Avalox asked.

“When decisions are made based on personal connections and prejudices rather than merit or qualifications,” she said, “it creates the perception that the special-events process is not open, fair and transparent.”

Avalox chalked up the denial of the food festival to “collateral damage,” adding she knows that one council member is “openly against what I do,” referring to Councilwoman Michele Tanner’s previous opposition to drag shows.

Drag shows in the St. George area have faced considerable backlash over the past year from Tanner and others who argue they have a corrupting influence on impressionable children. The public furor in some circles, especially over the “We’re Here” drag show staged at a city park last summer, was a factor in the council’s recent decision to change its special events ordinance.

In March, the City Council enacted a six-month moratorium on approving any further special events at city parks and spaces until the council could make some changes to the code governing such gatherings. Last Thursday, the council revisited the issue, amending the ordinance to exempt recurring and city-sponsored events from the moratorium and making it apply solely to new events.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Assistant City Attorney Ryan Dooley said the block party and other events Avalox and Klabanoff mentioned were approved despite advertising in advance of receiving their permit because the city carved out an exemption for them in the revised ordinance and made it retroactive.

For her part, Klabanoff said revising ordinances and making them retroactive was improper.

“It is not OK to retroactively come up with a city ordinance when you find out that the verbiage in your city codes [isn’t] proper,” she said. " It’s called retroactively fixing something. The city’s best practices and ordinances are not satisfactory and I, nor will my business, nor should other businesses be caught in the middle of that.”

In countering that, Dooley argued the city was on solid legal footing in denying the applications for the drag and food events because Avalox and Klabanoff advertised “without having the permit issued and without being approved.” Moreover, he added, “the issues raised by the appellants are being addressed during the six-month moratorium.”

Avalox said she only advertised her event after receiving permission from Sarah Reber, the city’s special event coordinator, on March 23, eight days before her permit was denied. Reber was not at the meeting but said in a signed affidavit she did not give permission for Avalox to advertise.

“I have searched my emails and found no such correspondence or communication,” Reber stated in the affidavit. “I do not recall any in-person conversation, nor any other communication by text, letter, or 3rd party regarding advertising approval.”

Waiting for final approval before advertising, Klabanoff and others noted, is problematic because permits are often granted the day before or day of an event, not giving organizers sufficient time to advertise and get the word out to ensure a good turnout and make the event successful.

Councilwoman Danielle Larkin, the only council member who voted to overturn the denial, concurred with that assessment.

“I thought the applicants did an excellent job explaining why the current requirement to wait to advertise until the final permit is received makes doing business nearly impossible,” she said following the council’s ruling. “That is why this code has not been enforced in the past. We need to make our event application process easy and understandable for all applicants. If a group wants to rent our parks or facilities, we should apply the same standards across the board. If they agree to the standards, they have every right to use our facilities.”

While conceding advertising and other requirements in the current ordinance are flawed, other council members emphasized the importance of following the rules until the ordinance can be fixed.

“We need to follow the ordinance,” Councilwoman Natalie Larsen said. “We need to look at the ordinance, and if it’s not applicable, we need to get rid of it. But that’s what the six months allows us to do.”

Councilman Jimmie Hughes echoed Larsen in rejecting the applicants’ appeals. “At the end of the day, in our effort to become consistent and not show favoritism, we should always just follow the ordinance or get it changed,” he said.

Council members’ rejection of the appeal follows a meeting last week at which a large crowd packed the council chambers to thank the city for rejecting Avalox’s application and railed against drag shows in general.

Both applicants characterized Tuesday’s hearing as a charade that skirted the real issue — drag. Klabanoff said she agreed “one million percent” with the assertion made by some that her event was collateral damage in some city officials’ ongoing war against drag.

Added Avalox:

“It seems like they already made up their minds before I spoke,” the drag organizer said. “It’s transparent that the City Council’s decisions were based on a prejudice veiled through city ordinances when they pick and choose who to enforce these ordinances with.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.