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Presidio County Further Delays Adopting Mass Gathering Procedures, Appoints Health Authority

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The Presidio County Commissioners Court has now twice delayed adopting permitting procedures for large-scale events in the county. (Diana Nguyen / Marfa Public Radio)

By Sally Beauvais

The Presidio County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Wednesday to postpone adopting permitting procedures for major events and outdoor festivals, once again.

County officials first proposed an event application process last month — after Austin-based company C3 Presents announced their plans to hold a music festival of 5,000 outside of Marfa’s city limits.

In April, the Presidio County Commissioners opted to slow down and take more time to research how a mass gathering permit could be tailored to address the needs of the community and the dangers major outdoor events pose to the remote region.

A group of residents has since formed an advisory committee with the aim of helping commissioners develop the terms of the potential permit, and study areas with conditions similar to Presidio County's that have hosted large-scale events in Texas and elsewhere.

Members of the advisory group were surprised to learn the mass gathering permit was on the agenda with action again for this week, given their first meeting with County Judge Cinderela Guevara is scheduled for June.

During Wednesday's meeting, Judge Guevara presented a formal set of guidelines as well as an application and permit form for major events and mass gatherings, largely based on generic procedures from the Texas Association of Counties, as well as Travis County's version of those documents.

The public asks: what's the rush?

Trey Gerfers — board chairman for the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District and a member of the citizens' advisory group — told commissioners the county needs to hear more voices and more legal opinions before moving forward with a procedure locally.

"This is a big deal and you want to get it right the first time," Gerfers said Wednesday. "And we want to help you. But when you put it on [the agenda] as an action item, it makes people wonder."

C3 Presents is holding a closed meeting with county and city officials Thursday morning, which, according to Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke, marks the first time local officials will formally present their concerns to the Austin-based company, and try to get a grasp on what they are proposing.

The timing of the meeting has stoked suspicions among some residents, however, about the permitting procedures appearing on the commissioners' agenda once again.

Presidio County's Justice of the Peace David Beebe, who attended Wednesday's meeting as a community member and not in his official capacity, told commissioners he didn't see a reason to rush the permitting process.

"Why, today, are we having an action item on something we have plenty of time to consider, and plenty of time to get public comment on?" Beebe asked.

Several county officials voiced concern about waiting much longer to adopt a permit, in case other events are on the more immediate horizon for the county (C3’s festival was initially being planned for 2020, but has since been delayed).

"If you want to even control this, we have to have some policies in place," Commissioner Buddy Knight told residents in attendance. "Otherwise, we control nothing. Your choice."

Mitschke agreed with Knight, adding, "I don't think we have as much time as we think we do. And my question is, what authority do we have in the county without a permit process? In other words, could C3 come in and just do it anyway because we don't have a permit process?"

David Beebe later argued that the Texas Mass Gatherings Act requires organizers of large-scale events to secure permission from local authorities before they can move forward.

"If you don't have a process, and they do something, you can shut them down because they didn't get permission from you all," Beebe said.

County Judge Guevara said her office is unsure of whether that's true.

"My main concern is that in the past we've never had this, and perhaps we should have," Guevara told Marfa Public Radio following the meeting.

While Guevara feels sure that more large-scale events are on the horizon for Presidio County, she said she's not aware of any specific possibilities at this time.

County appoints a Health Authority

While a decision on a permitting procedure was postponed, commissioners did appoint a County Health Authority at Wednesday's meeting— a requirement in the events permitting process set out by the state.

Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint local doctor JP Schwartz to the position. Schwartz, who was unable to attend the meeting, will be involved in assessing whether prospective large-scale events are in compliance with the health procedures to be set in place by the county.

Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.