Permits and disaster measures: This week at Marfa City Council

MARFA — City leaders faced a short agenda this week as they tuned into a virtual council meeting, with just a handful of items on their core agenda. But city leaders nonetheless got into some big topics, from film permits to disaster ordinances.


As is typical at public meetings these days, the coronavirus loomed large in conversations. As part of the discussion, Mayor Manny Baeza gave updates on city case counts — noting that while the city officially had 15 cases, just four of them were active and 11 considered recovered.

The main reason coronavirus came up, though, was disaster ordinances. City officials on Tuesday night considered three of them, all of them previously set to expire on Wednesday.

The first was Marfa’s local disaster declaration. The second outlined the phased reopening process for city buildings like the library and the Marfa Visitor Center. The third was the local mask ordinance, which effectively requires masks at all businesses. City leaders renewed all three, with possible new expiration dates set for August 15.

In discussion of those ordinances, the main debate concerned the phased reopening of city buildings. Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda proposed they move the city from Phase 5, a.k.a. “code orange,” to Phase 4, which would allow visitors into city buildings under limited circumstances.

“I don’t think we’re at the worst we’ve been,” Ben-Yehuda explained. And at the very least, he said he wanted city leaders to “clearly define what the metric is” when it comes to the next phase of reopening.

Ben-Yehuda, though, faced significant pushback from other council members. “I’m very hesitant to make people feel uncomfortable in their workspace,” said Councilmember Natalie Melendez. She argued that phased reopening rules were “not only about keeping city staff safe but also reducing anxiety.”

Councilmember Buck Johnston agreed. Councilmember Irma Salgado likewise said it would be “hard to monitor how many people are coming and going.” In the end, the council ultimately decided to hold back on a phased reopening of city buildings, with Ben-Yehuda voting against.

Permits, pt. 1: Events

City leaders also discussed permits for filming, as well as for events at the Visitor and the MAC building. The latter agenda item was at least partially inspired by the situation with Gregory Romeu, a local gun show organizer.

Last month, Romeu threatened a lawsuit against Marfa after city leaders, citing the pandemic, did not allow his gun show to proceed. City officials wanted to iron out when exactly Marfa could cancel a public event without breaching a contract. And they figured one perfectly fine reason for not holding events are “acts of God,” like a pandemic.

In the end, though, city officials tabled that measure. There were too many facets of the issue to discuss. Among them, City Attorney Teresa Todd argued, was whether the city should require special coronavirus safety measures and cleaning protocols for events.

Todd said she didn’t want to be “a Debbie Downer” but pointed out that Dr. Ekta Escovar, the public health authority for Brewster County, had previously said that coronavirus could still be disrupting life all the way into 2022. “We need to acknowledge that that kind of cleaning is probably on the horizon for a very long time,” she said.

Other issues came up, too. How should Marfa structure rental fees, to make sure that — for example — a birthday party or high school prom wasn’t charged the same as a for-profit event? And what about a clause stipulating that people had to rent tables and chairs? One council member proposed the latter, saying it would be a good way to compensate city staff if furniture needed to be moved around.

Mayor Manny Baeza pushed back. Marfa, he noted, had previously allowed residents to rent tables and chairs. But some of those tables and chairs went missing, Baeza said.

Permits, pt. 2: Films

Event permits weren’t the only permit issues on the agenda, though. City leaders also discussed film permits, raising fees to (for example) twice the base pay plus benefits for any EMS or police workers who were needed on scene, as well as $250 per hour per block for any city streets closed during filming.

Those fees won’t be set in stone, though. At the suggestion of Susan Kirr, a local film producer, they include a clause that “all fees can be modified based on the scope of the production.”

The reason such clauses are important, Kirr said, was that city leaders should be able to adequately charge big-box films or commercial companies for filming. But those fees “might be too high” for music videos or short films, and Kirr urged city leaders not to price out indie filmmakers like those.

Like the issue on events permits, the discussion of film permits was also born out of controversy. A few weeks ago, the Ford Motor Company filmed a commercial in town, shutting down part of South Dean Street.

But Ford waited until the last minute to get permits from the city, frustrating city leaders. Also frustrated was Maiya Keck, founder/owner at The Get Go grocery store and an attendee at the meeting.

“To have a production right in front of a grocery store seemed really inconsiderate to me,” Keck said in a follow-up interview. “Particularly in the time of COVID, when grocery stores are essential businesses and we’re doing curbside pickup.”

Goodbye to Melendez

Near the end of the meeting, City Councilmember Natalie Melendez said she will no longer be seeking reelection in November. She declined to go into details but said it had been a “hard year,” and she needed to focus on other concerns.

Melendez, who’s served on Marfa City Council since 2018, has taken an interest in housing issues during her time on council, serving on the city’s affordable housing committee. Other council members said they were sad to see her go and wished her the best.