By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The City Council has broad discretion in imposing limitations on requests from groups to seek donations during “tag day” fundraising appeals, according to a legal opinion by the city solicitor.
Solicitor William Cox’s ruling is in response to the council’s recent decision to decline a request from local firefighters to collect donations Aug. 30 at some of Haverhill’s busiest intersections — Main Street at Rosemont Street and River Street at Lowell Avenue.
Several councilors said previous Labor Day fundraisers by firefighters to collect money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association have clogged streets, inconvenienced drivers and created unsafe traffic conditions caused by firefighters standing in the roadway.
“It’s a great cause and I agree having toll booths with firefighters in uniform in the middle of street stopping traffic is a great way to raise money,” said Councilor William Ryan, who led the effort to block approval of the license last week. “But I don’t think this is something we should be doing or allowing. ... Families who are trying to leave the city on vacation are basically being subjected to a toll.”
The council agreed it would not approve the tag day license until and unless a representative of the Fire Department attends its May 28 meeting to discuss the matter and the two sides are able to come to an agreement on what can and can’t be done on public ways.
The council plans to review the matter at that meeting, but it is unclear whether a Fire Department representative will attend.
“Council may exercise judgement about public convenience and public good that is very broad,” reads the legal opinion from Cox, who is employed by Haverhill to make such rulings. “The council may deny a request if the council deems that the requested dates, locations, times and/or qualifications of an applicant are not in the best interests of public safety, public convenience and public good.”
Cox suggested the concerns of councilors could be alleviated by conditioning the firefighters’ license to prohibit solicitations during high-traffic periods of the day.
His opinion also warns against treating any particular applicant differently from others, however.
“Each applicant enjoys certain equal protection rights which could be violated if the applicant, compared to others similarly situated, were selectively treated, and that such selective treatment was based on impermissible considerations ...,” Cox wrote.
While several councilors said firefighters in the past have violated provisions of the tag day ordinance against standing in the road, Cox said there is no such language in the rules.
However, he said the council can put such limitations on any individual license.
After The Eagle-Tribune published a story on the controversy earlier this week, Gregg Roberts, president of the firefighters union, emailed a reporter an unsolicited copy of the ordinance, which is also available on the city’s website.
But Roberts then declined comment on the matter and did not respond when asked if the firefighters felt councilors were wrong in accusing them of violating the ordinance in prior years.
The firefighters are also asking to collect money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.
Their license request says they would be collecting on those days at several off-street locations — the High Street and Water Street fire stations and in a parking lot in Bradford’s Central Square.
But Cox’s opinion questions whether those additional days are allowed under the ordinance, because the locations could include collections in public ways adjacent to those parking lots.
“The council could condition the granting of any license with a provision that the applicant shall not solicit in any public ways adjacent to the specified locations, as to do so would violate the ordinance,” Cox’s ruling said.