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Evanston City Council members have extended their contract with a firm to provide security at the Evanston Civic Center, tacking on the City’s Sherman Avenue Parking Garage to their duties with individuals sheltering in the facility an issue.

At the Jan. 25 City Council meeting, aldermen approved a staff recommendation to extend their contract with Phoenix Securities at a price not to exceed $300,000 per year.

The Skokie-based company is run by a retired Evanston Police Officer, Leon Mitchell, a 23-year-member of the Department. The company hires retired police officers as well as other local Evanston residents, staff said in their memo.

Previously, Evanston police officers would sometimes sit in at public meetings at the Civic Center, 2100 N. Ridge Ave., particularly when issues generated large crowds or featured hotly debated topics, but no formal plan was in place. Entering into a contract with the firm in December 2019, officials described the measure as a “proactive” one to provide greater safety for the Civic Center’s employees as well as its visitors.

In March of this year,  the Civic Center was closed due to COVID-19, and the security officers were asked to not report in for duty, Interim Assistant City Manager Kimberly Richardson said in a memo to aldermen.

“Once the Civic Center was reopened for essential services/employees, Phoenix Security was asked to return and handle checking-in/COVID questions/temperature checks of employees and other security operations needed,” she said.

“This has been very successful over the past nine months, and staff would like to continue operations.”

The City turned to Phoenix to provide security at its Sherman Avenue Parking Garage, after the services previously provided had been suspended due to COVID-19.

“Depending on the openings/continued closings of buildings due to COVID-19,” Ms. Richardson said in her memo, “there may be an additional need for security at Maple Avenue or Church Street garages. This extension would allow for the continued use of Phoenix at any three of the garages if required.

Alderman Sees Wider Issue

In discussion at the City Council’s Administration & Public Works Committee meeting Jan. 25, Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, chairing the meeting, asked Ms. Richardson whether the contract “was a pretty big expansion,” in the City’s agreement with Phoenix.

He asked specifically would the firm’s duties at the Sherman Avenue  be the firm’s duties in providing security at the garage over night.

The City previously had a contract with the firm, SP+, for services at the garages, Ms. Richardson said.

As COVID-19, the City ended its contract with the firm, she said, realizing almost a million dollars in savings for the City, offset against the revenue lost during the time the garages were closed.

Ms. Richardson told Committee members that the City shifted Phoenix to the Sherman Avenue garage, in response to individuals taking shelter in the facility this fall as the weather turned cold.

With the firm’s support, that area has had “less issues occurring security-wise,” she said. She said officers at the firm are trained to engage individuals they encounter sheltering at the garage, asking them if they could please leave the area.

“Basically, it’s a matter of getting somebody to leave the garage,” Ald. Suffredin observed. “We don’t connect them to services — we don’t have an overnight shelter to offer them.

“I know this is a larger issue,” he told Ms. Richardson. “ I’d really like to see a coordinated effort. I understand there’s a security issue, there’s a trespass issue, there’s a protected property issue, but I think when we’ve got homeless people in a parking garage they’re not there because they want to be.”

Entering the conversation, Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, spoke in support of moving ahead.

“ From my perspective everything we’re seeing on the national scene, I don’t  see any issue with what they’re doing at the Civic Center. “In fact, it’s probably more important than ever.”

He also pointed to the City’s savings in the move.

Following up on Ald. Suffredin’s concerns, Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, requested that staff present an update on City’s Task Force on Homeless work with the city’s homeless population.

On the Council floor, aldermen voted 8-1 in favor of a two-year contract extension with Phoenix, with Ald. Suffredin casting the line no vote.

Bob Seidenberg

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.