Something is wrong in the People’s Republic of Evanston. A fear frenzy – inspired by Big Brother, Dick Cheney, local crime or something else – has worked its magic to induce the City Council to throw a chunk of the civil liberties of residents and visitors into the omnivorous maw of “public safety.”
After little Council deliberation and no citizen input, Downtown Evanston will soon be sated with police surveillance cameras. More cameras are coming to the south side of town between Ridge and Callan avenues near Howard Street. And cameras will go up near the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center on Foster Street.
We are disappointed as much with the process as with the outcome. There was an 11-month span of silence between the June, 2008, submission of an application for a grant to cover the cost of the cameras and the Council’s April 26 approval of it.
What was going on in the meantime?
How did it slip through the cracks of the Capital Improvement Program budget?
According to documents provided to the public for the April 26 City Council meeting, the police department applied for federal grants for the cameras in June 2008. The public was not aware of the submission. Two grants were awarded, and again, the public was not informed. We still do not know when the awards were received, though we know the grants expire on December 25 of this year.
City staff formed a project team in August 2009 to begin the project, without any community or business involvement. City staff, again without any public input, created a Request for Qualifications and published it without telling the community. They received six responses on March 8 of this year and selected their favorite.
Ordinarily, expenditures like the surveillance project would appear on the Capital Improvement Plan budget, and the public and City Council would have been able to discuss and address it then. The City staff’s memo admits that “this project was inadvertently omitted from the FY 10/11 Capital Improvement Plan as submitted to the Council for adoption.”
The first and only time, therefore, that the City sought any public input on the surveillance camera project was when the item appeared on the April 26, 2010, Administration and Public Works and City Council meeting agendas. It appeared as a “Business of the City by Motion, For Action” item, meaning that if approved it would not appear again – the community had one opportunity to speak. No one knew this was coming, and as a result no one was prepared to address it.
This issue deserved more discussion before adoption. There are good arguments for cameras, and Police Chief Richard Eddington has often made them. He obviously made the case to City staff, who pitched this to the aldermen, but we wish it had been pitched to the public as well.
A downtown full of surveillance cameras will feel like a different downtown than one without. We believe that our citizens, our community and our business leaders should have been far more involved in this decision. Further, as the failed bombing in Times Square shows, cameras do not always work or help. Cameras had the nation looking for the wrong suspect based on camera angle, timing and the warmth of the day. More to the point, Evanston is not London, or New York City, or Chicago.
Chief Eddington said last month in presenting his case for the cameras that Evanston is a safe City.
Second Ward Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste pointed out that no one made a case for why we needed these cameras.
Installing cameras without citizen input and at federal expense may have been the easy road but it is not the high road we expect from City government.
The installation of surveillance cameras is a much more complex decision than City staff treated it. Like it or not, a city is less innocent, less welcoming, less homey and less free when surveillance cameras stare down from on high. It may be that these things are already true of Evanston.But the whole of Evanston, and not just a very few members of the City’s staff, should have been in on making that determination. It is a shame, and a mistake, that we were not.