The city of Torrance has backed off from requiring the organizers of a Saturday rally at Columbia Park to pay a $1-per-person fee for the privilege, blaming a “miscommunication” for a mix-up that local activists initially said undermined their right to free speech.

The fee actually is one that, since the mid-1990s, has applied to groups larger than 25 that want to reserve a barbecue pit and picnic tables, said Community Services Director John Jones. Nonresidents are charged $2 per person.

The nonprofit Torrance Refinery Action Alliance was mistakenly told by a City Hall staffer that the group would need to pay the fee for holding the rally in the public park, an amount that could have reached as much as $500 given that last year organizers estimated the rally drew a crowd of about 500.

But the group is not holding a barbecue, Jones noted.

“What we have here is a classic miscommunication,” he said. “There is not going to be a permit needed because they’re not having a picnic — they’re having a rally and a march. It’s not going to cost anything.”

Local activists will mark the two-year anniversary of the ExxonMobil refinery blast in 2015 that spawned two grassroots groups demanding operational changes and a ban on highly-toxic hydrofluoric acid. Members of both will gather Monday morning at Columbia Park to protest and March to the refinery. The event occurs against the backdrop of the AQMD seeking improvements to the power infrastructure at the Torrance refinery; the company said Thursday it lost $75 million in the third quarter, largely due to two power outages that curtailed production at the plant.

It took most of the day Wednesday for officials to respond to Daily Breeze inquiries about the fee.

Councilman Kurt Weideman, who will speak at the rally along with colleague Tim Goodrich and Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, called the fee “ridiculous” when he heard about it.

“What if there are counter-demonstrators, do they have to pay for the people who don’t agree with them?” wondered Weideman. “I have never heard of this before. I am incredulous. It is absolutely stupid.”

The rally is being held on the anniversary of the February 2015 explosion at the refinery that almost caused a “catastrophic release” of hydrofluoric acid that authorities said could have killed or injured tens of thousands.

Sally Hayati, president of the TRAA, said it was unnerving to find out initially that, in Torrance, free speech wasn’t free.

“It’s crazy they would think of doing this,” she said earlier Wednesday before hearing Jones’ explanation. “Are they trying to discourage residents from peacefully exercising their free speech rights?”

Saturday’s rally begins at 9:30 a.m. with a concert by folk singer Ross Altman. The event itself goes from 10 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. at the park, 4045 190th St.

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