The "festival seating" arrangement used at the Salt Palace when three teenagers were trampled to death last month has been illegal in Salt Lake City since 1982 - according to an ordinance some say apparently was forgotten.
The ordinance reportedly came to light after City Council Chairman Tom Godfrey asked city attorneys to draft an ordinance to outlaw the seating arrangement.The ordinance specifically outlaws "general-admission seating wherein persons are admitted without being assigned a particular reserved seat" in all places with capacity for more than 2,000 people.
The ordinance exempts high school and college events, religious events and events where the sponsor has received an exemption from the city.
City Attorney Roger Cutler said Wednesday the Salt Palace never applied for an exemption to the ordinance. Therefore, city officials never reviewed what was happening. City fire officials were aware of the seating arrangement, but they were checking for proper building capacities and things related to fire safety.
The ordinance should be enforced by city licensing and building officials, who never were notified of the seating arrangement.
`I was unaware this was going on," Cutler said. However, he said, if the Salt Palace had asked for an exemption, the city may have granted it because of the crowd-control precautions in place.
"We've got a committee looking at whether we should remove the exemption altogether," he said. He also said the city is studying whether the county can be made to pay a fine for violating the ordinance. Violations are a class B misdemeanor.
The three teenagers were trampled during a concert by the Australian group AC/DC on Jan. 18. Under the festival seating arrangement, people with general-admission tickets were allowed to roam freely on the arena floor, without seats. The teenagers died after the crowd, which numbered more than 4,500 on the floor, surged toward the stage.
People who served on the City Council in 1982 said theypassed the ordinance in response to a tragedy in Cincinnati, in which 11 people died while trying to enter an arena. They said they intended for the ordinance to apply specifically to the Salt Palace.
"I remember discussing it (the ordinance). It was shortly after another (concert) tragedy in the East. We were extremely concerned that it not be repeated here," said former City Councilwoman Sidney Fonnesbeck.
"I don't remember passing the law, but I was surprised if we hadn't because I knew we discussed it."
Fonnesbeck said she was dismayed by the AC/DC tragedy because she thought "we had thought we had done away with that (festival seating).
"I didn't know it was going on or I wouldn't have let my children attend those concerts. I assumed it had been taken care of a long time ago."
Former Councilwoman Alice Shearer said she guesses people forgot about the ordinance as Salt Palace management changed. The Salt Palace is owned by Salt Lake County. It currently is managed by Spectacor, a private company based in Philadelphia.
"I do recall that we decided that (general admission seating) wasn't an appropriate thing to have in the Salt Palace," said Shearer, who now is executive director of the state Department of Administrative Services. "But the city didn't have physical control of the Salt Palace. No doubt as the management of the Salt Palace changed, they didn't know about the ordinance or no one reminded them of it.
"If anyone had complained about it to the city, the city could have told the county to comply. Obviously no one complained about it. It's an ordinance you wouldn't go around checking all the time."
John Rosenthal, the county's fine arts director whose jurisdiction includes the Salt Palace, said he was unaware of the ordinance.
Salt Palace officials have allowed festival seating off and on since about 1985. According to minutes of a youth advocacy group dated May 24, 1988, Salt Palace management had decided shortly before that meeting to change from reserved to festival seating at most rock concerts.
R. Craig Clark, an attorney representing the family of one of the victims, said news of the ordinance may expand his claims of negligence.
"On top of the obvious negligence in the case, if the people responsible also violated an ordinance it may create an additional presumption of negligence at the time of trial," he said. Clark, a San Diego attorney, represents Bruce C. Child, father of one teen trampled to death in the AD/DC concert.