Occasional visitors to the Healdsburg Plaza may have been entertained during recent summer months by a casually dressed late-middle-aged man with a 12-string guitar, singing loudly from a swiveling office chair with a tip bowl in front of him.
He is, by classic definition, a busker—“a person who performs music or other entertainment in the street or another public place for monetary donations.”
Donald O. Cummings, known by his initials as “Doc,” has been a fixture at the fountain for the past three years, playing two hours at a time five days a week, so much so that some residents felt his persistent performances had become a problem.
Acting upon complaints from residents, other musicians and plaza visitors, the Community Services Department developed a Special Performance Policy for the Plaza, which was passed last month by the City Council. The belief was that it was the absence of a city performance policy that enabled Cummings to set up and perform with such frequency, leading to what many perceived as an unfair dominance of one person over Healdsburg’s central park.
“‘We’d really like our plaza back,” said Bob Lawrence during the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting a month earlier. “We want some quiet around the fountain, so you can hear the birds, you can hear the children play around the fountain without one particular individual coming up and just dominating it for a couple hours, five days a week.”
When Cummings appeared before the City Council recently, dressed in a blue suit and carrying a clipboard of endorsements, signatures and messages, he painted a different picture. “The one-hour permit is really, it’s very personal. It has taken me, basically, and put a target on my back.” He went on to say “there’s a couple people who do not like what I do and they have brought this agenda up to you. They have bragged about that … [t]hey will terminate what I do.”
The 71-year-old Cummings said he was injured in an automobile accident seven years ago and he has found that musical performance is a kind of physical therapy. “I’ve taken two hours a day to go down there to improve my wrists and elbows so that I can get through this,” he said following the Oct. 2 City Council meeting. “I have three people, plus one musician who I haven’t seen in three years, who has brought this agenda, who threatened to bring this agenda and used the council as a weapon against me.”
The city staff, however, does not see this as a vendetta by a small group against one person, but as a recurring problem that might find a solution in limiting the hours and frequency of any one performer, and hopefully reducing conflict.
“These situations have been observations by staff, verbal reports to staff or emails to staff,” said Community Services Director Mark Themig. “Staff identified the need to develop a program governing performances in the Plaza and worked with the city attorney to develop the policy.”
Police Chief Matt Jenkins said, “The Police Department has responded to multiple complaints over the last several years related to these issues,” adding that his staff is “familiar with Mr. Cummings.”
Creating a Policy
In August the Parks and Recreation Commission recommended that the city create a policy requiring an application to perform, to create some order to public performance. The Special Performance Policy for the Plaza was sent to the Healdsburg City Council for approval on Sept. 5.
According to the city’s report at the meeting, “The lack of a structured performance schedule has resulted in overlapping events, amplified noise complaints and, at times, public disputes.”
The policy required that anyone who wanted to perform—music, dance, theater or “oration”—needed to apply for a permit at least a week in advance, could only perform for an hour at a time and could only do so once a week. There would be no charge for the permit, but a permit would be required.
The councilmembers—who approved the policy by a 4-0 vote; Evelyn Mitchell was absent—took pains to say it wasn’t about one person. An internal effort was made to assure that it did not interfere with First Amendment rights.
The policy took effect on Sept. 18 with the City Council’s second vote. The Special Performance Permit is a simple one-page form, available at city offices or on the city’s website, that requires a name, address and other contact information, a performance description and six requested dates and times—each with an alternate date and time, thereby giving an applicant 12 choices of performance time.
Performances are limited to what the policy calls “the area directly underneath the Plaza gazebo,” which might also be called the gazebo stage.
According to Themig, since the permit policy went into effect until Oct. 2, “a total of 11 permits have been granted, distributed among three performers.”
But just two days after the Council’s Sept. 18 vote, Cummings went to the Plaza at his usual time, 2pm on Wednesday—“crossing the picket line,” as he put it—to perform without a permit.
Themig recounted that when Milde saw Cummings (Doc) performing, he offered “to issue a courtesy permit on the spot as no other permits had been issued for that day, but Doc declined. Matt reiterated the need for a permit to perform in the Plaza, but Doc continued to perform.”
Cummings says he’s spoken with the legal rights division of the state, and talked with “four lawyers, who say they’re stomping on my First Amendments rights. They are willing to stand up and file suit against the city if this isn’t taken care of immediately.”
As the staff report stated, “this initiative seeks to strike a balance between supporting performances and preserving the Plaza’s peaceful atmosphere for all to enjoy.” It may be that the passage of the policy created a problem other than the one it was designed to solve.
Cummings defended his right to keep singing without a permit in the Plaza. “Ricky Nelson had a song,” he said. “‘You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.’”
The Special Permit Policy and Application are available on the city website at https://tinyurl.com/u6jxct95.