County Cops Duke It Out With Feds for Burning Man Buck$ (updates)

The Federal Bureau of Land Management does OK out of Burning Man – $1.5 million of OK, with last year’s much smaller numbers.

Now, the Pershing County authorities have got wind of this, and they want in on the action. Last year they made $175,000; they’d indicated the bill would be $180,000 for this year, but now they’ve upped it to $400,000, with plans to increase it to $1 million in the near future. They want $1.50 per person per day.

What does the taxpayer get for that? One county law enforcement officer per 1300 Burners – a number the county has mandated to change to 1 in 500. Right now, including county LEOs and BLM, we have about 1 in 600 coverage.

They need to rent a radio – that sounds smart. Why waste money giving police radios year round, when you can rent them every year for Burning Man? They get $15/day for meals – wonder where that gets spent? Is there a donut shop in Deep Playa? They also get 3 new laptops and $3000 of glow sticks.

BMOrg doesn’t like it, so they’re suing to keep the cops, and more to the point, high level Pershing county officials and judges, in check. Here’s the Reno Gazette Journal:

Black Rock City LLC, the group that organizes Burning Man, is suing Pershing County in federal court, claiming the rural municipality increased the cost for county law enforcement and other services to profit from the event.

In June, the Pershing County Commission agreed to charge Black Rock City LLC $400,000. Burning Man organizers said that’s significantly higher than last year’s charge and could increase to more than $600,000 next year.

Officials for Pershing County have declined comment until they can review the litigation, which was filed Thursday to the U.S. District Court in Reno. The lawsuit names the Pershing County Board of Commissioners, District Attorney James Shirley and Sheriff Richard Machado as defendants.

“This really isn’t about regulation, it’s about revenue,” said Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, in an interview Wednesday. “It’s our contention that Pershing County is proposing to charge us fees that are essentially unlinked to any service and that it’s simply motivated by a desire to increase county revenues. Period.”

Black Rock City, the temporary home of the annual Burning Man event, is expected to attract more than 60,000 people to the Black Rock Desert this year. Attendees generate an estimated $10 million in local economic activity.

That includes an increase in traffic at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, which sees about 15,000 travelers during the last week in August — the busiest single week of the year, said Heidi Jared, a spokeswoman for the airport.

Minutes from the June 6 Pershing County Commission Meeting when commissioners approved a $400,000 fee for Black Rock City, LLC:

The 27-year-old event has been located in Pershing County since 1992, expect for 1997 when organizers moved it to a private ranch in Washoe County. Black Rock City LLC has compensated Pershing County for services since 2005.

Harvey said Black Rock City LLC has already paid the $400,000 fee and the lawsuit will not affect this year’s Burning Man event, which starts Aug. 27 and ends Sept. 3.

Because the event takes place within a national conservation area, Black Rock City, LLC also pays the Bureau of Land Management more than $1.5 million for permitting and other costs, which will include 58 federal law enforcement officers this year

In 2011, the entire event cost about $20.6 million, according to Burning Man organizers. Revenue for 2011 has not been disclosed.

The dispute with Pershing County has been building for months and, in June, the County Commission agreed to increase the fees that Burning Man organizers pay the county.

District Attorney Shirley told commissioners that county employees are spending time on Burning Man instead of other government business, meaning taxpayers are subsidizing the event, according to minutes of a June 6 commission meeting.

The $400,000 event license Black Rock City, LLC, is paying this year includes more Pershing County Sheriff deputies patrolling the eight-day event. The increase was recommended by Pershing County Sheriff Machado.

This year there will be 44 county officers, up from 26 last year.

Harvey said the Pershing County fees are expected to increase to more than $600,000 in 2013 and then to more than $1 million in the coming years.

That’s because of a new Pershing County event ordinance set to take effect in October that will require at least one county law enforcement officer per 500 attendees.

This year, there will be one county officer per every 1,300 Burning Man attendees. Combined with the BLM officers, there will be roughly one law enforcement officer for every 600 attendees this year.

The county seems to want to rival BLM not in terms of its ability to regulate, but in terms of its ability to generate revenue for itself,” Harvey said.

Harvey said Black Rock City LLC has donated nearly $400,000 to Pershing County organizations over the years, though that might end given the increase in costs. [punish the community for the actions of the cops? Sounds self defeating -Ed]

The event does not allow vendors and only sells ice and coffee during the event. The vast majority of income comes from ticket sales.

“We may not be able to continue our charitable donations,” Harvey said. “There’s a limit to what we can shell out.”

He added, “I have some sympathy for them. Times are tough for everybody, but I don’t think they should be able to secure their revenues by exacting a tax on our right to assemble out there. That’s government intrusion on private enterprise, and we have a wonderful record of being a very responsible citizen in Nevada.”

The Pershing County lawsuit comes amid several challenges to Burning Man that have happened over the past year, which have included a lottery system for tickets because of sky-high demand and a formal challenge to a population increase from 50,000 attendees to 60,900.

If things go well this year, the BLM might allow an additional 10,000 people to come to the event over the next five years.

via Burning Man organizer suing Pershing County over higher fees | Reno Gazette-Journal |

They’ve created a whole web site dedicated to the law suit. Unfortunately they need to spend a bit more time briefing their lawyers, or perhaps at least reading the brief themselves before it gets submitted – they claim that Burning Man took place on private land in 2007. I’m no official but I’m pretty sure that was 1997. Also, their lawyers might want to learn the difference between a “statute” and a “statue” (para 24). There is also conflicting information on this web site about the size of donations to the local community: the “fact sheet” claims donations have been going for 20 years, with $222,000 given away in 2011 just from ice sales; while the “economic benefits” document states donations have been going since 2003, with $65,750 in donations to 21 charities in the current year, and an all-time total of $395,600.

If you can’t get your own facts straight, don’t be surprised to find the judge doesn’t believe the rest of your claims.

It sounds like the judge is pretty shonky anyway:

the Defendants have orchestrated their attack on Burning Man through
the vehicle of a collusive state lawsuit as to which BRC was not a party and which was
presided over by a judge who (1) is personally opposed to the Event because of what he
considers to be its purported culture and content and gave public testimony before the
Commission in support of the amended Festival Ordinance whose lawfulness he would later
uphold, (2) personally witnessed an affidavit in support of the state court petition, (3)
summarily granted the petition without the benefit of motion, briefing, or notice to BRC, and
(4) signed the order granting the petition the day before the petition was filed, all in violation
of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendments.

The claim states that Judge Wagner (I’m reminded of Judge Joseph A Wapner of the Peoples’ Court – showing my age perhaps) doesn’t like the “content” of the Burning Man event:

this was not Judge Wagner’s first effort to drive the
Burning Man Event out of Pershing County. Two Defendant Commissioners separately told a
representative of BRC that Judge Wagner opposed the expressive activities occurring at the
Event, and was pressuring them to void the 2005 and 2011 Agreements and, through the
imposition of huge fees and heavy regulation, affect the content of the Burning Man Event and
cause BRC to seek to relocate the Burning Man Event out of Pershing County

…Commenting that Burning Man “purveys titillation,” he made the following additional statements:

a. “I’m very concerned about what the community standards are becoming in this
community. When they first came, everyone was shocked. Now, we’ve
accepted them and now we’re embracing them, because what? They bring
money to the community? Something’s wrong with that.”

b. “This isn’t a place for young people under eighteen to be, under any
circumstances. That’s my opinion.”

c. “You want to see what a lawless culture, built like 49ers and Deadheads and
Cyber Punks leads to? National Magazine, I would say it in two words, ‘Penn

d. The laws of the state and the laws of this county apply to Burning Man as much
as they do to the city limits of Lovelock, and what’s described in this article, if
people were to do it here, they would be in jail, in prison.”

e. “[T]he idea that they can self-regulate and have their own policemen and carry
out their own regulations is ludicrous. It is people here, county officials, who
have absolute duty to enforce the laws. You took an oath, as did law
enforcement, to uphold the laws and constitutions of this state. That includes
lewdness around children and the other things that have occurred.

Their argument of “supremacy”, that the Feds should subcontract the County officials, has some merit. Their argument of First Amendment suppression is going to be much tougher to prove. The Fourteenth Amendment (due process) has clearly been abused, but remember, this is the Wild, Wild West. Justice doesn’t always happen by the book – and out of it state hippies don’t automatically trump locals, even if the law is clearly on their side.

At this point an even more astonishing series of events ensued. The Petition
was assigned to Judge Wagner – the very individual who had spoken out at a public hearing
against the Burning Man Event, had provided a public statement that the agreement between
BRC and the County was not valid, had privately pressed Commissioners to implement the
relief requested in the petition, and who had witnessed the Affidavit in support of the Petition.

69. Apart from federal constitutional requirements, Nevada State law addresses
circumstances in which a judge is required to recuse himself. Rule 2.11 of the Nevada Code of
Judicial Conduct provides in pertinent part:

Rule 2.11. A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any
proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be
questioned, including but not limited to the following
(1) The judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party
or a party’s lawyer, or personal knowledge of facts that are in
dispute in the proceeding.
* * *
(5) The judge, while a judge or a judicial candidate, has made a
public statement, other than in a court proceeding, judicial
decision, or opinion, that commits or appears to commit the judge
to reach a particular result or rule in a particular way in the
proceeding or controversy.

70. Without the benefit of any briefing, Judge Wagner granted the Petition. See
Exhibit Q. Inexplicably, he signed the order on May 15, 2012 – the day before the Petition
was even filed. 

So the Nevada judge should’ve recused himself, and didn’t. Good luck making another Nevada judge censure him. Have you ever seen any movies or TV shows about what goes on “behind the scenes” in Nevada? There couldn’t possibly be anything corrupt, in a State where gambling and prostitution rule the economy, and “Sin City” is the main tourist attraction.

The judge’s claim that Burning Man leads to Penn State is bizarre – he could make the same claim of Folsom St Fair, or many other happenings in San Francisco. Or Las Vegas for that matter. Do West Coast liberal values lead to the same kind of organized pedophile pimping that conservative, Ivy League East Coast athletic programs do? I can’t see any evidence of that. In fact the evidence seems to point to the contrary – it’s priests who end up being pedophiles, not strippers.

His idea though, that the behaviors at Burning Man are not suitable for children to witness, has a lot of merit in my opinion. Do you really want your kids to see a naked guy with a 10 inch hardon in a penis pump? Even if you think that’s great for your own kids to see – nothing you wouldn’t show them at home, perhaps – do you really think it’s fine for any kid to see? Burning Man should be adults only, have a “Burning Spongebob” or something that the kiddies can attend.

[update 8/17/12 7:07PM – some good coverage of the case at Courthouse News Service

8/18/12 10:23AM – amusing comments over at, had me cracking up. Also interesting observation that the Judge is a Mormon with a special interest in juveniles, and sits on a state supervisory  board of judges. This comment from Burner wejash was very insightful and well informed:

The politics of this are interesting: It used to be that Burning man was held on 4 sq miles of BLM land that was all squarely in Washoe County, which was more or less okay with Burning man because the one week of the festival accounted for 50% of the gross yearly receipts for places like the Empire general store, which was the only general/grocery store in the 150 miles between Reno and Empire/Gerlach, and BM LLC maintains a good deal of their offices and storage facilities in Gerlach bringing badly needed revenue to the town.

In recent years two important things have happened, and I don;t think they were by accident. BLM moved the site of the festival to a bit of land that was half in Washoe and half in Pershing county. However since it was the back half of Pershing county, the county derives no economic benefit from BM being there (other than the Police and fire fees they can squeeze out of the LLC) and politically Pershing county is dominated by conservative Mormons so the Sheriff to keep his job has to be seen as extremely and publicly anti-Burning Man. It’s been his deputies who have been responsible for some of the extremely aggressive and sometimes outright illegal enforcement actions we’ve seen at the festival in the last few years (and this is a big deal because MJ possession in Nevada is still technically a jail able offense, although at BM the standard detente is to let the BLM rangers enforce egregious cases and issue a federal citation rather than make an arrest.

added to this problem is that while Gerlach nearly disappeared when the bottom fell out of the Gypsum market a recent gold strike at a nearby mine has created a boom town economy in the area so Washoe county no longer needs BM for its survival and are less inclined to pushback against what Pershing has been doing lately

BM will be okay though I hope, they have some VERY good lawyers who work near- pro bono for them, my greater worry is that the accumulation of hassles may cause Larry to throw in the towel soon. He’s in his sixties, as are a lot of the senior staff, and frankly they really haven’t been very good about grooming the replacement power structure. Alot of the people who SHOULD be given the keys to the kingdom are no longer attached to the LLC , because they’ve wither burned out or been forced out over time. And honestly a lot of those in the power structure now are exactly the kind of peope who should never be allowed anywhere near something like BM. They have the souls of ambitious corporate executives or middle management, both of which are poisonous to the “do-acracy” that Burning man was Built on.

When we built our regional burn, we carefully studied a lot of How BM does business and decided to do the opposite (including incorporating as a legit 501(c)(3) rather than an LLC). Still they are the Mothership, Rome to our provinces, and it would be sad to see it die.

Some more enlightening stats from Ron’s Log. Seems like there are all kinds of podunk shenanigans occurring. The county want $75,000/day so their cops (assisting all the other LEOs already there) can  handle this crime load:

After the 2011 event, Pershing County provided these law enforcement statistics to BRC:

  • 1 arrest for battery
  • 3 arrests for domestic battery
  • 2 arrests for possession of controlled substances
  • 2 citations for battery
  • 7 trespass advisements
  • 6 reports relating to missing/found children
  • 0 serious criminal violations


That’s for a week-long event with more than 50,000 people. Compare that to Stagecoach and Coachella in 2012: 235 arrests over two weekends at Coachella and 174 arrests at Stagecoach.

THere were 22 Pershing County Sheriff’s Deputies patrolling Black Rock City in 2011 and the Sheriff’s Office reported “[t]here were sufficient personnel most of the time to handle the incidents as they occurred.”

Since the Pershing County festival ordinance was enacted, no one has applied for a permit under it, and no festival has occurred that would be covered by the ordinance. The ordinance only covers festivals with more than a thousand attendees. In the 2010 census the population of Pershing County was 6,735. The U.S. Census has updated that to 6,734 in July 2011 – a clear downward trend.

Judge Wagner used to be District Attorney in Pershing County. The suit says that the current District Attorney, James Shirley, was asked by Judge Wagner to amend the county’s festival ordinance so that it would apply to Burning Man.

Some brief TV coverage on Reno’s KRNV4 news

11:35pm – Pershing County has issued an official statement in response, they sound very dismissive of Burning Man’s claims (as you’d expect them to be with a judge in their pocket).

Their first defense is a point of law:

Although Pershing County Officials have yet to be served with a Complaint or any documentation, it has been reported that Black Rock City, LLC has filed suit against several officials in Pershing County. Based upon initial information provided through press releases and reporting on the filing, the pleading appears to be rife and replete with misrepresentations, omissions, and inaccurate information. All though an answer will be able to provide more information as to the problems with the factual representations of Black Rock City, LLC, a simple example illustrates the failure to include crucial infomiation that would change the perception of what is occurring. For Example: Black Rock City argues that state law is preempted by federal law. A crucial omission that Black Rock City, LLC has failed to include in their pleadings in this respect is that the BLM Recreational Permit requires that Black Rock City, LLC comply with all state statutes and local ordinances in hosting tl1eir event. The festival ordinance imposed by Pershing County is pursuant to a Nevada State law (Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS) 244.354 et seq.) and local ordinance (Pershing County Code 5.16). 

then we get some “he said, she said”…

Black Rock City alleges that in May of 2012 “the County decided not to have a separate law enforcement agreement but to deal with law enforcement expenses through its licensing under the Festival Ordinance.” This allegation misrepresents the facts. The County stood ready and willing to enter into an agreement. Black Rock City Officials terminated the negotiations and indicated that there would be no law enforcement agreement.

and of course, the “they can afford it” argument (which might be true, but is no justification for a County shakedown driven by an opinionated Judge):

Black Rock City asserts that the increased fees will endanger the fiiture viability of the Assembly, yet fails to mention that tickets prices to the annual Assembly have skyrocketed…The Pershing County law enforcement costs represent about 2.6% of the total ticket price.

8/19/12 1:04PM – the Reno Gazette Journal has weighed in on the dispute, with an editorial emphasizing how important Burning Man is to many of the local economies. One of the commenters, Steele Woole wonders if this could be linked to the recent trial between some Burners and a wealthy Pershing County rancher:

Does this have anything to do with that rancher who was sued for burning other people’s property? I know he’s rich and influential in Pershing county, and word is that most ranchers on that side of 447 absolutely abhor hippies. 

These people watch Gunsmoke and think it’s reality tv. 

Burning Man will move. Pershing county is going to be the cause of Empire and Gerlach finally drying up and blowing away – and then those ranchers can buy up the land once the towns go away.

Update 8/23/12 – Editorial from the SF Examiner


It didn’t take long for some Burners to start a petition and call for a boycott. This is LAME and WILL NOT HELP. We’re not convinced that taking it out on a few local merchants, will help win Burning Man support from the local Pershing County community against their elected officials

42 comments on “County Cops Duke It Out With Feds for Burning Man Buck$ (updates)

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  19. “His idea though, that the behaviors at Burning Man are not suitable for children to witness, has a lot of merit in my opinion. Do you really want your kids to see a naked guy with a 10 inch hardon in a penis pump? ”

    WTF? No, I would not particularly want my kids to see that. BUT, I’ve been going to BM since 2005 myself, and I’ve never actually seen anything like that. Have we been going to the same festival, or have I been doing it wrong (or in this case, right)? I know there is plenty of stuff like that going on, but in my experience you have to actively seek it out. There is of course plenty of public nudity, but automatically conflating that with public sex is a pretty (ahem) puritan view of the world. The media has had a tendency for years now to portray BM as some sort of Folsom Fair on the playa, which I think is doing the whole event a huge disservice. I find it ironic that at a time when BM is finally getting a fair portrayal in mainstream media an argument like this comes up in this blog, in a piece accusing the judge of taking a ‘prim and proper’ view of BM none the less

    • TW is correct. There’s a legal difference between simple nudity and lewd behavior. Simple nudity is legal out there on Black Rock Desert, but public sex and using penis pumps publicly are not, and you can get busted for that. I’ve never seen a penis pump at Burning Man either. I’ve seen public sex only once, and that was in 2007 in a very dark area at 4 in the morning. I couldn’t even tell what gender the two people were.

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  27. The radical self expression and acceptance of the Burning Man culture in Black Roc City, indicates that the Judge can come to BRC and fuck his own ass and be allowed to do so.

  28. The bigger the event gets the further it will be from its presumed ideals. It’s unfortunate and didn’t have to be this way but the almighty dollar is god in this country. The main characters in this pseudo-idealistic charade (the borg, the various Nevada bureaucracies) have shown their main concern is not freedom of expression or the so-called principles but rather filthy lucre.

    • Burning Man was fantastic this year; filled with positive energy, laughter and community joy. What made it so unexpectedly great, quite possibly, is that predictions were so cynical and dire that people such as yourself chose not to attend.

  29. it’s not like BMorg can’t afford it. plus, the community of residents should be protected from the eyesore of watching hipsters and yupsters pretending to be anarchists prance around like they’re changing the world or something. it’s really embarrassing and the local communities deserve greater compensation for having to witness it.

    • Flawed logic, determining whether something’s right or wrong should not be determined by affordability. Indeed, I am a local resident, and I am grateful for the increased economic activity occurring from this event. There is no embarrassment except for people who exaggerate and view things in the pejorative as above for an entitlement excuse to grovel for more money.

    • What public event have you ever been to that needs 1 cop for every 600 people? The amount of violent crime at Burning Man is pretty low so who are they protecting with these vast numbers of men with guns? Sounds like both government intrusion into our personal lives and greed.

    • The cops need more money because hipsters think they’re changing the world? That’s like the opposite of danger money. Next you’ll be saying they should get more because they have to look at beautiful naked women all day long

      • you’re exactly right, i know cops who strongly desire to get assigned out there for the week, they love it and they get paid

    • Lol Paul. That might be hard, since they’ve increased ticket prices pretty much every year from the start. You might have a better case around “misleading and deceptive conduct” – perhaps even outright fraud – for their ticket shenanigans this year.

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