Rule breakers rain on annual parade

By most accounts, the 41st annual downtown Los Altos Festival of Lights Parade Nov. 25 was pure holiday bliss. Thousands of spectators gathered along Main and State streets to witness the procession of floats and performers, their smiles beaming as brightly as the colorful lights decorating Santa’s float and the uniforms of the local high school marching bands.

The event, with the perennial theme “A Child’s Fantasy,” is a feel-good celebration all-around, put on solely by volunteers for no other reason than to make people happy. And at this year’s parade, as at every parade in the 40 years prior, it was mission accomplished.

Well, with a few exceptions.

The problems that do surface usually occur before and after the parade. Arguably the most popular community event of the year, the Festival of Lights prompts some people to reserve spaces along the parade route to ensure prime viewing – sometimes many hours ahead of the 6 p.m. Sunday parade time. In the years before guidelines restricted setup times to no earlier than noon on parade day, some people were claiming spots the Saturday before. But some are still reserving spots prior to noontime, a practice that clearly frustrates others who follow the rules.

“I arrived exactly at noon on parade day to discover all curbside spots were reserved, and many with chalk,” said Terri Sachs, who noted that guidelines specified no chalk. “I spoke with an officer along the parade route who had been watching all the offending parties since early (parade) morning. I wondered why this flagrant disregard for rules was being allowed, and he told me that the police do not have the authority to do anything about this, since in years past they had tried, but public outcry was massive.  … What’s the point of telling us rules when people are allowed to do as they please knowing there is no enforcement?”

Los Altos Police Chief Andy Galea understood Sachs’ frustration.

“I was told that several people complained to officers that they were on the parade route at noon and a lot of spaces – and certainly prime spaces – had already been saved,” he said. “Clearly, people are not adhering to the guidelines, and maybe the good weather played into even more people setting up early. I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of saved spaces that were not occupied within an hour of the parade.”

Public safety matter

The issue goes beyond fairness. People are using tape, chalk, blankets, tarps, chairs, tables and ropes to reserve spots, creating obstructions and possible safety issues.

“On First Street, by The Post (restaurant), the narrow sidewalk was completely taken up by chairs, forcing any pedestrians to walk in the street,” one resident observed.

“I was downtown Sunday late morning and the sidewalks and intersections were already reserved, with blankets, chairs, chalked and taped areas,” another resident noted. “It’s an accident waiting to happen – some chair owners had strung rope between their chairs tying them to the street signs, with the rope about a foot off the ground, it would definitely be invisible at dusk and night time. At Second and Main, in front of Rustic House (restaurant), one group had taped down a slick plastic-coated blue tarp at the crosswalk, covering the ADA bumps completely. The tarp was wet so had obviously been there a while. It looked very slippery and caused people to walk around it to cross the street.”

The post-parade problems present themselves when people leave behind messes made from the taping and chalking on the sidewalks.

“Most people are courteous and clean up after themselves,” Galea said. “But anything left behind and chalk marks need to be picked up or cleaned up by city crews.”

Galea met with Los Altos City Manager Chris Jordan and new Public Works Director Manny Hernandez the day after the parade to discuss the complaints.

“I think we are all open to ideas,” Galea said. “One thing we agreed to do is more public outreach and signage about the noon setup rule. One of the issues is the ‘who’ and ‘how’ the enforcement of any new rules would be implemented. Maybe I am being too optimistic, but I am hoping that making people more aware of the noon setup rule, appealing to their sense of fairness and letting them know that on the day after someone needs to clean up chalk marks, etc., will help going forward.”

While acknowledging that some have gotten “a little out of hand” with the chalking and space saving, parade organizer Nancy Schneider was quick to point out that most people attending the parade are on good behavior.

She recalled feedback she just received from the mother of a young family.

“(She) mentioned that they have been coming to the parade for years, and people have always offered her kids seats on the curb with their kids or in lieu of adults sitting on curb,” Schneider said.

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