Beck event, protest was a costly embarassment for Mt. Vernon

by Erik Lacitis, Seattle Times

Glenn Beck Day in Mount Vernon was an expensive lesson for this small town, as it found out the cost of hosting a controversial celebrity.

It's on the hook for $17,748.85, mostly for 239 hours of police overtime.

Isn't that a little steep for a one-day event?

"Honestly, I'm a bit surprised at how big the cost was," says Alicia Huschka, the town's finance director.

Well, says Ken Bergsma, the town's police chief, better to be prepared than not.

The chief says the crowd of 800 to 1,000 demonstrators that greeted Beck for his early-evening appearance on Sept. 26 was the biggest protest he's seen in his 32 years as a Mount Vernon police officer.


says he told the City Council, "I'd rather be before you justifying the cost of the staffing involved, as opposed to being before you to explain why it was underplanned and understaffed."

From the chief's perspective, there was reason for concern.

The town got the full Internet and media treatment after Mayor Bud Norris decided to present its famous son with the ceremonial key to the city.

Beck grew up in Mount Vernon, and he landed an on-air job as a teenager at Seattle's KUBE-FM doing graveyard shifts after sending in an audition tape. After later stints as a Top-40 "Morning Zoo" disc jockey at other stations, Beck evolved into his current anti-government, populist, outraged persona who called President Obama a racist.

The reaction to the mayor honoring Beck, says Bergsma, is that the town got 3,000 e-mails, plus some phone calls. The police chief says his department assigned one officer to review all those responses.

Bergsma says one anonymous phone call, which couldn't be traced; and one e-mail, which was traced, "were alarming, with indications of threats." He doesn't want to give more specifics.

From all those comments, says the chief, "We determined we'd have a minimum of 500 people at this event."

Then what?

You've gotta start planning for what could happen, that's what.

Overtime adds up

The hours started to add up, with "preplanning" overtime ringing up $4,425.84.

Eventually, 38 law-enforcement people were involved, including officers from neighboring towns, as well as the State Patrol and Skagit County Sheriff's Office. As part of an agreement in which jurisdictions in the area share police help, officers from other jurisdictions were not paid by Mount Vernon, but from their own agencies' budgets. Those sums have not been added up.

All that law-enforcement presence accounted for some of the other expenditures.

In case of arrests, there was $100.25 for flex cuffs, those plastic, disposable restraints. There was $243.46 for radio batteries, and $438.21 for that orange-net safety fencing.

And there was $324.57 for easel pads and Post-it notes for use in a command post.

The big day finally arrived.

There was plenty of shouting and waving of signs, but that was about it.

Only one person was arrested, for disorderly conduct.

So the two Mount Vernon firefighters who each worked three hours overtime didn't have much to do. But the Fire Department bill of $848.67 for that day also included 13 hours overtime from its public-information officer, whom the city used for the event.

In any case, the police now have a good supply of flex cuffs.

The city's finance director does point out that the $17,748.85 in costs isn't going to be all cash expenditures because the cops agreed to take $5,733.56 in comp time.

The police chief takes the longer view on that $17,748.85. If another large event happens in Mount Vernon, the town now has an operational plan, says Bergsma.

Of course, if it was a Glenn Beck-type large event, perhaps the local politicians might have second thoughts.

Tickets to see Beck were sold for $25, and the mayor said he hoped sales would generate $10,000 to give to the historic Lincoln Theatre in town. Beck said he'd match that with another $10,000 of his own.

But the math on that part of Glenn Beck Day went askew.

There were 577 tickets sold that generated $14,425, before expenses.

Income from ticket sales would have been higher if 92 comp tickets hadn't been given out.

Norris says he gave comps to Beck's family, "community leaders, people in leadership roles. ... I'm told that's pretty common."

So the tickets sales netted $5,746.83 — after $5,754.17 was deducted for the hall rental, and $2,924 deducted for radio ads.

Why radio ads for an event that received such free publicity and was sold out in one day?

"The radio advertising was to make sure we sold tickets. I didn't know what kind of response we would get. I didn't want to go through all this and have 50 people show up," says Norris.

Even faced with the police overtime costs, the City Council voted to give the proceeds from the event to the theater as the mayor had promised. Meanwhile, Norris has been calling on donors to raise the $4,000 or so needed to meet that $10,000 goal. Norris says he's raised $3,000 so far.

Mayor: no regrets

The mayor, 64, who is in the middle of his second term, says he'll likely run for re-election in two years.

The City Council had distanced itself from Norris by unanimously passing a resolution stating that, essentially, Glenn Beck Day was his baby, and his alone.

Norris says he has no regrets.

"I don't go to bed at night worrying about what people are saying about me on the Internet or blogs," says the mayor.

In any case, by re-election time, Mount Vernon will have hosted an event much more exciting to many of its residents.

From April 13 to 15, the town is the site for the 2010 Tulip World Summit.

For sure, the Police Department will have security covered for that one.

article originally published at Seattle Times.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey