Local busker, bylaw officer square off over outdoor music

A local busker says he's questioning whether he's welcome to perform on the city's sidewalks.

Last Saturday, a bylaw officer handed out a $500 ticket to Michael Elliott, who was playing downtown at Bernard and Pandosy.

Elliott says that the day before, that same officer had approached him on the same corner, asking to see his busking license, which is only Festivals Kelowna specific, and to be used only at their 16 "busk stop" locations around town.

"I say 'I don't need a busking license to be here at this spot.' He seems to take some personal offence to that, he gets pretty worked up in a huff, and then he storms away. But before he storms away, he tells me he's going to be back in an hour, and he's going to have a ticket for me," he said.

"I assumed, as with the other instances with bylaw, that he went and read through the bylaw he was trying to enforce, and then developed a clear understanding of the bylaw. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case."

However, the city's Bylaw Services Manager Greg Wise says the bylaw being enforced was related to the noise, and that busking wasn't the issue here, it was the fact that Elliott was using an amp.

"Under the City of Kelowna Noise Bylaw, Section 3.3, no person can operate a radio, stereophonic equipment, or other instrument or apparatus for the production or amplification of sound, in a manner that disturbs the quiet, peace, rest, and enjoyment of the public, or the neighbourhood and people in the vicinity," he said.

Another main source of confusion for Elliott centred around the peace officer's request to see the permit.

Elliott says he's been asked to show it to bylaw multiple times before, but that because they're issued by Festivals Kelowna, and are valid at their 14 busking stops around town, which isn't where he was.

"They (Festivals Kelowna) inform you that there's no law against busking, or bylaw against it, and that if you do decide to not use a busking stop, then do not display your license. In fact, they tell you that if you're displaying your license, and you're not at a busking stop, you can have your license revoked."

While Wise says that information is accurate, he says the reason bylaw or RCMP officers ask for the permit isn't to shut down the busking, but rather to find out if the musician has connected with the Festivals Kelowna program.

With the Busk Stop program, Festivals Kelowna can approve a certain level that the amplifier can be used at, and that information is recorded on the permit.

"If he was asked by a peace officer or a police officer, he should be producing that to show that he does have it, if that's being requested they are supposed to do that," said Wise.

"Then we know (for example), 'it's showing on your permit here that you're supposed to be on volume setting 3, I can see you're on volume setting 6 here. Even though you're not in a permanent location, we've got a noise complaint, can you please turn it down?' And that would be the end of it."

Elliott confirmed that he does hold a Festivals Kelowna permit, which the agency confirmed also includes approval to use an amp at the busker stops. He was nearby, but technically not playing at, one of those stops.

The complaint was another factor that Elliott says he felt confused about, as he says he was never able to verify it.

"When the RCMP officers arrived, it was revealed that there had not been a complaint about me, however it was the attitude of the RCMP officer that I didn't need a complaint specifically about me," he said.

"He (officer) seemed to think that because there was complaints about other buskers in the past in the downtown core, then that warrants me to a ticket."

Wise also responded to that, and said while complaints from nearby businesses didn't reach the RCMP, they did make it bylaw staff.

"That's solely what it was. It was not an anti-busking interaction, or a ticket for busking. We'd reacted basically on a follow-up to a complaint from some businesses in that area that had made a complaint regarding the volume at which he was playing," he said.

"And that sound is unfortunately, like certain sections of the interaction, weren't captured on video there. We were just trying to get him to turn it down."

That being said, Wise says the part of the conversation on video was unfortunate, and that he's since had the opportunity to speak with the bylaw officer involved, to get his full side of the story.

Kelowna Councillor Ryan Donn also saw the video on Facebook, and says he was upset with what he saw.

Donn has worked with local buskers in the past, when he was formerly affiliated with Festivals Kelowna, and says he hadn't been aware of the specific section of the noise bylaw.

He says this is an opportunity to have a discussion about a larger issue.

"How much weight is given to one complaint, versus the benefit to the public? I think that's the conversation, at a council table or within the city, where I would like to know - is it one complaint, and we shut people down? It's a broad benefit to the community," he said.

"I would rather have buskers than no buskers. I would rather have Steven Tyler play on the piano without asking if he has a busker's permit. We want a vibrant community, we've got these Parks Alive, Pianos in Parks. All of it is built around a balance."

Festivals Kelowna Executive Director Renata Mills says that while they're in full support of the program, the city also has a right to enforce noise bylaws when musicians are playing outside of the busker stops.

She says if anyone has any suggestions on potential areas to add more stops, or re-work existing ones, they can contact her through Festivals Kelowna.