Luca Gattoni-Celli does not ride a skateboard.
"I nevertheless feel the need to stand in defense of my fellow students' basic liberty," he said Tuesday night before City Council. "I know that sounds dramatic, I know it sounds contrived, but it really is true."
Skateboarders and skateboarding sympathizers dominated the half-hour citizen participation period at Tuesday night's Charleston City Council meeting with pleas for a change in the city's ordinances regarding downtown skating. The impetus was a resolution from the College of Charleston student government that asked for an exception to skating prohibitions within the college campus, but non-students also spoke about uneven treatment by police and a confusing city code that allows skating on certain peninsula streets but not on others.
The laws regarding skateboarding downtown are fairly straightforward on their surface: No skating in commercial districts, school overlay zones, or places where the speed limit is over 25 mph. But unless you carry around a city zoning map, it can be difficult to know where those commercial and school areas are.
After the meeting wrapped up, City Councilman Mike Seekings stuck around to talk with the skaters and their supporters. After thanking them for coming out and scolding one for wearing his hat inside the council chambers, he rolled out a map of the peninsula showing commercial zones in blue and school overlay zones in green. The blank areas, he explained, are OK for skating. The map was a veritable two-color Pollock painting, with off-limits zones scattered throughout the city and few clear corridors.
"What I want to do is clean this up," Seekings said. Although no action was taken on the skateboarding concerns Tuesday night, Seekings said the city could eventually have skateboarding routes heading east to west and north to south, and clear No Skateboarding signs could be placed in off-limits areas to clear up confusion. A first step, he said, is to educate skateboarders so they have a clear understanding of city ordinances. He says certain roads will never be open to skateboards.
"There will never come a day where I will think it is feasible to skateboard on Calhoun, Coming, or East Bay," he said.
The complaints Tuesday night came from a younger crowd than is usually present at City Council meetings. Gattoni-Celli, a senior economics student and outspoken libertarian at the college, was also a vocal critic of Student Government Association President Ross Kressel during his impeachment proceedings last month. Some members of the SGA were present, including Chairperson Erich Hellstrom, who presented the resolution and challenged City Council to explain "why skateboarding is different than bicycling or walking."
Most of the speakers criticized the city's no-skateboarding laws, but some argued that there was an enforcement problem. Seth Hughes of West Ashley said police officers might be more likely to ticket short-board skaters like himself than longboard-riding college students.
"We like to ollie, and we have more maneuverability than the longboarders," Hughes said. "We're out there for a different reason." He said he was riding on King Street recently when he passed a police officer on the sidewalk and gave him a high-five. A few blocks later, another officer flagged him down.
"He was screaming 'Hey,' which I guess is cop for 'Stop,'" Hughes said. He says the officer handed him a ticket that listed his violation as "Skateboarding on Road" and included a court date but no specific fine. He said he had been riding downtown since he was 12 years old and did not know he was breaking the law.
As the last of the skaters and SGA members filed out of the dark-paneled council chamber Tuesday night, Councilman Seekings thanked them once again for coming.
"I respect y'all," Seekings said. "Good for you. This is the democratic process."