Evanston officials say they would like to add two armed security guards to patrol the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center during work hours as well as at night meetings, but aldermen have requested a closed executive session for more details about the request.

At the City Council’s Administration & Public Works Committee Sept. 9, officials recommended hiring Phoenix Security to provide the service at an annual cost of $113,400. The Skokie-based company is run by a retired Evanston Police Officer (Leon Mitchell, a 23-year-member of the Department) and hires retired police officers as well as other local Evanston residents, staff said in their memo.

Officials cited no specific incidents prompting the request, which was described as a “proactive” measure to provide greater safety for the Civic Center’s employees as well as its visitors. Currently, the Evanston Public Library employs four unarmed security monitors to provide security coverage at the Main Library, but other City buildings, including the Civic Center, where most City meetings are held, have no formal security detail.

Frequently, in recent years, Evanston police officers have sat in at meetings or circulated through the building, particularly when issues have generated large crowds or feature hotly debated topics.

With the two officers, “one will be able to monitor the entrance with the most foot traffic – on the first floor by the 311 desk, while the other roams the building,” said Erika Storlie, Assistant City Manager/Director of Administrative Services, and Sean Ciolek, the City’s Facilities and Fleet Division Manager, in a memo to the Committee. “By offering the staggered schedule, one guard will be able to take a break while the other is on duty, and it will allow for a longer schedule providing more security during regular hours and night meetings.”

Addressing the Committee, Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook cited violence in the workplace and violence in general in support of adding more security. Over a three-year period, police have received 172 calls for service at the Civic Center, located at 2100 Ridge Ave., he said. He said the calls “cover a whole range of things, from disturbances, burglaries to vehicles in the lot, miscellaneous public service, nuisance complaints and so forth within the building.

“It is the City of Evanston’s position to make people feel comfortable in their work environment,” he noted.

Chief Cook told aldermen the cost difference of using a private security firm rather than police to provide security could be significant, estimating police officers’ hourly rate at $50 versus the $29 an hour rate that private security guards would receive. He said the Phoenix security firm is run by a former Evanston Police Sergeant, Mr. Mitchell, “and a number of the personnel that he has are retired police officers or current police officers, so I don’t think it would be an issue of getting them into the fold of what’s expected at City Hall and paying attention to what’s going on on the outside lot,” he told aldermen.

Ms. Storlie added that during the past 15 years, there have been times when the security topic has been brought up. “The safety of people in this building, whether visitors or employees, is of paramount concern to all of us,” she said. During that time, officials have looked at things such as adding security doors or cameras. But one of the limitations of the building, a former Catholic girls school, is the number of entrances and exits, she said.

Over the years, the City has looked at closing some down, but because of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards, were limited in that regard, she said. Also, Ms. Storlie said the building’s electrical system is at capacity, limiting the addition of such push buttons, badges and security devices as are in place at modern office buildings.

In discussion, some aldermen, while sympathetic, pressed for more details in support of the $113,000 request, citing the City’s overall budget pressures.

“I just don’t want us to bring in this resource and then worry later how we’re going to cut something else,” said Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward.

Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, acknowledged receiving a number of emails about the proposal, leading her to ask the City Manager for additional details about the request. She said she was told the information was not of the nature to be shared with one alderman.

Consequently, Ald. Rainey said she would not vote in support of the request if “the information is not there,” demonstrating a real need. As a result, she requested the Executive Session, “so we can get all the information there is to share.”

“If there is a need, I certainly don’t want to be sitting here some day,” Ald. Rainey said about the Civic Center setting, “with grieving families in the audience, because there was a shooter in here.”

At an Executive Session, she is hoping aldermen can get all the details – what has been going on, what kind of phone calls have been coming in – to weigh the request. In her own ward, Ald. Rainey noted, she recently fielded calls about moving a polling place out of a school setting because of security concerns about the people circulating in the building. “I understand that is a real commentary on our society, but it isn’t something people are making up in their heads,” she said about changing thinking about security. “It’s a reality.”

During citizen comment at the Sept. 9 Council meeting, however, a number of speakers criticized the request, which staff marked for action with no prior discussion.

 “Who deemed this necessary and for what reason?” Lori Keenan, a longtime resident, said in an email and remarks to aldermen. “Do other communities our size have a similar armed presence? Our community doesn’t want or need this presence,” she said. “As we’ve said time and time again, private armed security personnel are not a deterrent for violence. If there was an incident, what would happen? The two options that seem likely would be to have the guard, A) call the police, or B) shoot someone. They wouldn’t have any authority to arrest anyone if there was a need. 

“With the EPD (Evanston Police Department) already having budgets and hours cut, if this is truly necessary, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest the $150,000 to have our guys who are trained handling this service?” she continued. “Or is this simply another way for the owner of Phoenix, who I believe is former EPD, to pad his pension?”

Albert Gibbs, another speaker, joined Ms. Keenan in her concern.

 “I’m having a problem with this,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I thought, two or three years maybe, the City Council said the budget couldn’t be balanced unless we cut a lot of programs that were meant to help poor people, minorities [and] so on. We’re supposed to have a pretty good police department, but we have to hire an outside security firm to protect city hall. That money should be used someplace else.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.