Shoelaces were tied, race numbers were carefully pinned to shirts, and youngsters and adults alike were ready to race around Downtown Lodi before going to Saturday’s art festival.
But the race did not start as planned.
Instead, temperatures rose and runners’ spirits flagged as the 8:30 a.m. start time came and went. Police refused to let the event proceed because they interpreted a complex street closure plan slightly differently than did race organizers.
It took another two hours before the race started. By then, more than half the original 300 runners had given up and gone home.
“I do this every weekend for a living, in 18 counties and two states. These are the most onerous requirements I’ve ever come across,” said Mark Aiton, whose company, On Your Mark Events, helped coordinate the foot race. “In other cities, police won’t sit there on a bike and say, ‘You have to move that sign a foot.’”
It was the third streetclosure event in seven weeks that encountered major problems, due in part to city changes regarding types and sizes of barricades, out of a concern for safety and legal liability.
Across town, though, the Obon Festival was allowed to close streets with signs that were half the size of those required at other events.
Closing streets now more complex
The city’s newly rigid street closure rules became evident on May 8, when Lodi Memorial Hospital’s Walk For the Health of It was delayed an hour until barricades were in place. For 19 years the event had no troubles, but this year police wanted larger traffic barriers, said Donna Shaw, who has organized the event for 16 of the past 20 years. The hospital contracted with Farwest Safety for the signs, and the Lodi company offered to waive the rental fees. But their trucks of barricades arrived late and didn’t have enough time to place dozens of barriers along the 3-mile course before the 9 a.m. start time.
Less than a month later, on June 3, the first Downtown Lodi Farmers Market of the season started late because a few barricades were missing. The roads were closed and the streets were free of all cars by 4 p.m., said Jaime Watts, executive director of the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership.
But in some places one barricade was placed in the middle of two lanes, rather than one barricade per lane. Police wouldn’t let vendors in until the barricades exactly matched the traffic plan.
The DLBP previously coordinated road closures on its own, and owns barricades that until this year were deemed sufficient to close streets. Now, with city public works and police demanding bigger barricades, it was cheaper to contract with Farwest, especially after they accepted a sponsorship title in exchange for rental fees and also provided the manpower to move barricades, Watts said.
The first farmers market night, her main Farwest contact person was sick, so someone else at the company read the complicated traffic plan and arrived without enough barricades. Once things were fixed, the market got under way. There have been no other problems — unless you count the large crowds of market-goers as a drawback. “We’ve got it down; now they’re there early and they have extra barricades,” Watts said, noting that one delay in 18 weeks of farmers markets isn’t nearly as big of a deal as a race.
Police holding a firm line
Saturday’s race did not have Farwest involved, because they didn’t have enough signs to meet the city’s requirements, Aiton said. The route was slightly more than 1.5 miles long, starting at Hutchins Street Square and looping through Downtown Lodi.
The traffic plan was created by the city, based on a map submitted by race coordinators. It had a legend to explain different types of barricades and signs, which was complicated enough that Aiton contacted the public works department to double-check the exact number of barricades he needed.
“At 5 a.m. Saturday I did a final count to make sure we had all 69 barricades we needed. We had the exact number of signs,” he said. “We had everything set up and ready to go at 8:30; we based it off the map. The police officer in charge said we didn’t have enough signs.”
Aiton contacted someone at Farwest, who hadn’t been contracted but brought some barricades. That took time, and meanwhile police weren’t accepting any slight compromises. Aiton didn’t actually blame the officer in charge, Motor Officer Brian Freeman.
“Brian tried to help. He was trying so hard but he was under very strict orders not to deviate one inch from that map. I’m around police every weekend and I know when a lieutenant or a sergeant says no, you don’t deviate. It’s like the military, you follow orders,” Aiton said.
To complicate matters, the road closure permit was set to expire at 10 a.m.
So Deanie Bridewell, the city’s arts and events coordinator, scrambled to reach the city manager by phone on the weekend. The permit was verbally extended, though event leaders asked remaining runners to run the 3.1-mile route rather than the 6.2-mile route, so the extended closure wouldn’t cause troubles for Downtown merchants.
Police officials did not return a message seeking comment Monday. The sergeant who oversees traffic was on vacation during the actual event and through this week. The acting police chief and captain were out of the office Monday. The officers who worked the event were also off duty Monday.
Some police at the scene blamed organizers for not having barricades in place early enough. However, barricades were seen throughout the neighborhood at 6:30 a.m., two hours before the race start.
Tony Vice, whose Fleet Feet Sports helped coordinate the event, hopes recent snafus don’t prevent future sports events from being held in Lodi, where he lives.
“I want successful events in Lodi. This is my neighborhood,” he said. “One woman came from Sacramento. She’d just moved here from Maine and thought the art festival sounded like a great event. We want those people to come to town and spend their dollars in town and not leave with a bad feeling.”
As for why the Obon Festival in east Lodi was allowed to use smaller, cheaper barricades, that question went unanswered Monday. Public Works Director Wally Sandelin said he was still looking into it and talking to staff.