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City Attorney: Community Trust More Appropriate for Gospel Music Festival

(November 17, 2016)

Representatives from the Apopka Christian Ministerial Alliance and the South Apopka Ministerial Alliance asked the Apopka City Council to partner with them to bring the Faith, Food and Family Festival to Apopka in January. They asked for in-kind donations of the amphitheater and associated costs of holding the event at that venue amounting to approximately $8,000. However the Council had a counter proposal – go through the John Land Apopka Community Trust.

What began as a city-sponsored Gospel Fest event that could not gain enough support from City Commissioners due in part to the perceived rushed November 15th date, was picked up by the two ministerial alliances, and re-scheduled for January 8th.

Seven speakers expressed their desire during the public comments section of the City Council meeting last night that The City of Apopka partner with the two ministerial alliances to hold the event.

“I want to say how important it is to have the faith based communities to continue to move forward,” said Pastor Hezekiah Bradford, President of the South Apopka Ministerial Alliance. “I do believe God resides in Apopka and that He is proud of what we are doing. We have a very diverse group, and we would really love to have the Mayor be on the stage welcoming this great event to the City of Apopka.”

Rod Love, an Apopka business owner who was co-chairman of the Apopka Task Force on Violence, reminded the Council what they were budgeted to spend $108,000 on Gospel Fest, and that an in-kind donation to the event would be a savings to their original plan.

“The commissioners saw fit not to use taxpayer dollars,” he said. “So the faith community came together to make this happen.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to bring the Gospel to Apopka?” Pastor Darrell Morgan asked the Council. “Wouldn’t it be nice to bring music to Apopka?” Morgan, the Lead Pastor at Word of Life Church in Apopka and incoming President of the Apopka Christian Ministerial Alliance, referenced how this was an opportunity for unity between the City and faith community.

“I was excited to do this festival until I got the bill. I do not mind the labor, because I think it will be worth it. I think our city deserves it. I think our kids deserve it. Having that diversity on stage and the good work we are doing would all be worth the time and effort. But one of two things are going to happen tonight. I’m going to go back to church and say ‘good news the city is working with us, or I’m going to say dig deep into your pockets.’ I don’t think that gives a positive image. When we started the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, it was free. Mayor Land gave us the VFW. Now we are charged for it. The City charges us. I would like this administration to work with us.”

The City Council took on the issue by first asking the advice of City Attorney Cliff Shepard.

“The question before us is can you waive fees for a religious event? And the answer is yes you can but that’s not going to be the dissuading factor. The issue is going to be what does that mean to you as a community? As you know you adopted a fee structure that applies to all community organizations, civic, religious and when they use our venues a fee structure applies. And the reason you did that was so you’re not put in a position to choose the merits or message of one and not the merits and message of another.”

“So the principal is everybody has to pay something? Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer asked.

“Or nobody,” said Shepard.

“Have we waived that fee for anyone else?” Commissioner Doug Bankson asked.

“No,” said Kilsheimer. “We don’t waive the fee for anyone.”

“And the Old Florida Outdoor Festival?” Bankson asked.

“Well Old Florida Festival is our event,” said Kilsheimer.

“And that’s my point, if it is structured as a city event, could we consider it, because it’s going to reach out to a huge part of our community.”

“I think we are in between a rock and a hard place,” said Kilsheimer. “And I take the attorney’s advice to heart. If we waive the fees for the Gospel Fest, we are going to be asked to waive the fees for other events. And we don’t want to be in that position. And that’s the issue tonight.”

“So there is no legal wiggle room? Commissioner Kyle Becker asked. “Because obviously Council has a certain amount of discretion, correct? So from a legal perspective, how great is that discretion?

“It’s really as much as your risk tolerance is,” said Shepard. “Because as elected officials you can do what you want and see how it all plays out. But the idea as City Attorney is to keep you out of that situation. You don’t do this, or you do it for everybody.”

Bankson and Kilsheimer rekindled the discussion of making the festival a City event, when Shepard suggested another option.

“I know that what was set up upon the departure of Mayor (John) Land was a community trust funded by City money. And by the way, it was funded for exactly this situation. To get it out of government hands and to say ‘here’s some seed money’ for when a minister’s alliance comes along and says ‘we really don’t have money, but we’re going to do great good in the community.’ This is what that trust was designed to do.”

“I remember Mayor Land saying that was one of the reason’s to do that,” said Bankson. “So that we could do great events and other things like this.”

“Again I am confident as to why the Community Trust was created,” said Shepard. “And it’s for this very purpose… to avoid what we’ve debated for about a half-an-hour. It’s so that you can take a position on organizations that you think are wonderful like this and point them towards the Trust and say ‘go there’.”

“Gentlemen, I would suggest that’s the way to go,” Bankson said to the ministerial alliance representatives. “Quite honestly I’ve been all around this thing and I think that’s the best way. Otherwise we’re going to end up biting away any single ability to help anyone who is doing good in this community, and that’s what is so crazy about our legal system right now, but that’s where we are.”

By Reggie Connell

City Attorney: Community Trust more appropriate for Gospel music festival