Organizers of the Denver 420 Rally defended themselves against allegations from City of Denver employees on Tuesday, September 19, during a daylong appeals hearing. The organizers are accused of violating numerous trash and security rules that led to a three-year ban of their permit after the 2017 rally.
Rally organizers Miguel Lopez and Santino Walter argued their case with attorney Rob Corry at the Webb Municipal Building, just across the street from where the annual rally is held at Civic Center Park. If an administrative hearing officer upholds the ban, they would be prohibited from applying for an event permit for three years, and Lopez would lose the priority status that puts his April 20 event application at the top of the heap.
Permit holders gain priority status from Denver after running the same event at the same park on the same date or holiday for two years in a row, but that status can be revoked if an event incurs five violations. The 420 Rally faces 29 counts of organizational misconduct from the city, adding up to five overall violations. If Lopez loses that status, Corry explains, that could effectively end his decade-long run of hosting the April 20 rally at Civic Center Park, since someone else could hold an event there for two consecutive years.
Lopez, the lead organizer of the rally, believes the violations and bans are contrived, which Corry made clear during his occasionally testy cross-examination of city employees. Defending themselves against accusations of improper waste management, poor cleanup, unlicensed food vendors and unorganized security, Lopez, Walter and Corry blamed the violations on a mixture of bad luck and overzealous city officials. Here's how they break down:
Trash was visible around the park the morning after the rally, while there were numerous reports from attendees and park officials about a lack of trash cans during the event. Lopez says that trash was picked up after the rally ended, but a homeless man with a knife slashed trash bags and threw trash across the park; at the meeting, Corry said that the waste-management service contracted by rally organizers failed to provide the supplementary receptacles it was paid to put in place.
"At the conclusion of the event, when the permit ended, the park was clean," Corry told the hearing officer. "We cleaned the park completely."
The rally's permit ran from Wednesday, April 18, to 11:59 a.m. Friday, April 21, which was also the deadline for the organizers to clean the park. Corry said the park was clean before the deadline, and Denver Parks and Recreation doesn't dispute that – but city officials testified that the lack of trash receptacles during the event and the lack of immediate cleanup afterward potentially harmed the health and safety of the park and its attendees enough for two separate violations.
In a recent interview with Westword , Corry noted that there was originally one trash violation and a noise violation that has since been rescinded by the city. Instead, rally organizers now face two trash violations, keeping the overall total of violations at five, the number needed to impose a ban.
Karlee Bobzien, an event facilitator for Civic Center Park and other city parks in the northwest district, worked with Lopez and Walter before the event to ensure the health of the park. She testified that although she alerted event staff of the need for more trash containers shortly after noon on April 20, they didn't arrive until 3 p.m.
"My focus is always on the park. When I got there, everything was going smoothly," she said. "Around noon, the trash started to show up." Bobzien told the hearing officer that she stayed at the event until 7 or 8 p.m., and saw cleaning crews arrive and begin picking up trash as she left, but did not witness the entire cleanup effort. Although the park was clean before the permit ended, Bobzien felt trash collection during the event was below park standards. She did, however, admit to seeing ripped trash bags at the park the morning after the event.
Another hotly contested charge was the city's assertion of failed and unorganized security. Samuel Gannon, a senior park ranger for Denver Parks and Recreation who's patrolled the rally since 2013, said that organizers didn't provide enough event staff or security guards, and that the rally didn't follow its submitted security plan.
Gannon also testified that there weren't enough security guards working the entrances or enough entry points open on time, causing long lines. Large groups of attendees were still waiting to get in as 4:20 p.m. approached, at which point several security fences were torn down, Gannon said. But Corry argued that Gannon didn't bring up a lack of event staff or security in the internal post-rally report he sent to city officials.
Gannon told the hearing officer that event security wasn't effective in weapons checks, adding that he saw bins of knives and other weapons in areas accessible to attendees. Although there were reports of gunshots about a block away from the rally, there were no reported assaults or weapon-related injuries at Civic Center Park itself.
The hearing will continue today, September 20. Hearing Officer David Ramirez has up to thirty days to make a decision; if he upholds the ban, Corry says he's ready to take further legal action against the city.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.