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Members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board didn’t close the door on a Council member’s proposal that would remove restrictions from park hours.
But the board at its Aug. 18 meeting strongly urged Eighth Ward’s Devon Reid to do more outreach and gauge more community support for that proposal as well as another on standards relating to public nudity, before changing the longstanding policies.
Leading off discussion, Robert Bush, president of the Parks and Recreation Board, noted that the system officials currently use “works really well…”
Although Reid responded: “It depends who you ask.”
Bush continued, asking the council member, “as we sit here today has there been a single town hall meeting – a single effort to involve people who live near and around parks to get their ideas on whether this is a good idea?
“Don’t you think though it’d be a good idea to have some community meetings in places other than the Eighth Ward to see what the temperature is of people who live in and around parks?” Bush added later, that it would give Reid “better intelligence on how to craft an ordinance that you think might pass muster.”
Reid said his proposal has been brought up at several ward meetings and there have been five discussions in all, including that evening’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting.
“Have I gone to every park in Evanston and knocked on the doors of the 500 neighbors around that park?” he said. “No, that’s not feasible. But what I have done is made myself very available for folks to share their concerns and their feedback.”
Currently, the hours of operation of public parks are 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily. Under Reid’s proposal, people could remain in or enter a public park from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. to sit, walk, jog or ride a bicycle quietly.
A person or group of persons making noise audibly from a distance greater than 50 feet would not be allowed to remain in a park from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. under the proposal.
Addressing the board, Reid said he appreciated the opportunity to give a clear description of what he was seeking to do through the ordinance amendment.
First, “I’m not looking to keep our parks open 24-hours-a-day or allow folks to pitch tents,” he said, an impression created by a news article that had a picture of a tent city in its article about the proposal.
Rather, he said his goal was “to to allow people to do things they are typically doing,” such as walking along the lakefront at night.
During the aurora borealis recently visible from the area, he noted, “If someone wanted to go to our lakefront and peaceably sit and look up at the sky and enjoy…this experience, they would not be allowed to do that here in Evanston” since the lakefront park closes at 9 p.m.
In neighborhood parks, the change would allow folks “to sit, walk or jog through the park quietly, as most folks, I think, do sometimes,” he explained.
He said officials would have still have tools to take enforcement actions if someone was loud, or creating a disturbance.
Evanstonians pay a lot of money ‘buying quietness’
Parks and Recreation Board members, who spent two previous meetings discussing the proposal, oppose the change.
Bush, who as a private attorney at one time served as counsel to more than 50 park districts through the Chicago area, pointed out that the amendment “is going to put the onus of enforcing bad behavior on residents, because they are going to have to make a call and say there’s noise in the park across the street and the police will come and by the time police get there, the noise will stop.
“And so the residents will have to sign [a complaint] will then have to testify in court in order to demonstrate that there’s been a violation of the ordinance.”
Bush continued, “Presently, I think we all recognize the way police work is if someone calls and says there’s a problem across the street in the park, they’ll show up, shine [their flashlight], then say, ‘Park’s closed, please leave,’ and everybody’s happy,” he said.
“I haven’t heard a compelling reason to change the ordinance,” said Bush, mentioning a recent shooting in an Evanston park as an additional concern. He said “laws and ordinances and policies of public entities should not be changed daily in order to accommodate what may be perceived as the ability to see the aurora borealis.”
Donald Michelin, another board member and Reid’s former middle school principal at Haven, spoke of the vested interest people have in the community remaining quiet.
Evanston “has a high tax base – people pay a lot of money,” he said. “You’re buying quietness … and I think we need to honor the taxpayers in Evanston.“We’re talking about the needs of a few outweighing the needs of many in this. Let’s do everything we can to keep our community quiet, so we can keep getting people who can pay the high taxes. I’m telling you, they’re not coming unless it’s quiet and they feel protected.”
Park Board member Mary Rosinski agreed with the premise behind Reid’s proposed change that “we don’t want to criminalize people walking through or randomly being able to stop in parks.”
She wondered if there was a way to address those situations while still preventing noisy congregations of people. As a longtime real estate agent, she agreed that people pay a lot to live near parks and are not going to want to have to call police with complaints.
Board member Kerri Machut also supported that more meetings be held to gauge public support.
If the new legislation were put in, “I wonder if that would evolve over time, after your term,” she told Reid, when a new council was seated “and things could just evolve, permitting more activities.”
Board Member Patricia Gregory indicated she had already done a survey of her own, and received mostly “If it’s not broke don’t fix it” responses.
“And so I think it’s very important we get it out there,” she said of a more extensive survey.
Further, she noted, “the lakefront is just a little bit different than the local parks, because you’re away from neighbors and Northwestern [University] kids, people come and sit on the rocks and watch the sun come up. But we’re not talking about the lakefront park right here.”
Reid was heartened by the remarks, suggesting there may room for compromise.
“I’m not coming down from on high and saying this is going to be the rule and and its either this way or no way,” he said.
He suggested the possibility of amending the ordinance to allow people to use the lakefront park in the manner he had proposed, as well as some other larger parks or areas, making sure “we’re incorporating the voices of residents while still allowing the gentleman who gets off work late at night and wants to take a decompressing walk through a park because he doesn’t have the opportunity to enjoy that public space during the day because of his arduous work schedule.”
Public nudity also needs public discussion
Change to the public nudity definition needs more feedback too. Bush said the Board is very interested to see what the council member can come up with, getting wider comment.
“We would certainly be happy to help you facilitate any kind of citywide meetings to get a better flavor of what people of this town really want to do in terms of park hours. So I wold strongly recommend that you not take this further without undergoing those kinds of information.”
The board also urged Reid to get greater feedback on another of his proposals, striking from the current ordinance a prohibition against showing a female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any portion below the top of the nipple.
Reid told Recreation Board members that his reason for the change was never, as one publication reported, “Reid’s topless beach plan.”
He said what his proposed ordinance change addresses that public nudity as currently defined in the city’s ordinance “regulates women’s bodies in a way that it does not regulate men’s bodies, and it specifically bars females from exposing their chest in public.”
Reid cited a Colorado case with an ordinance that mirrored Evanston’s that was ruled unconstitutional and didn’t advance further, he maintained, because of cost reasons.
Bush noted that Evanston’s Corporation Counsel Nicolas Cummings, in a memo in February, had said the city’s law department was confident it could defend the city’s ordinance if challenged.
In the memo, Cummings had cited a recent Missouri case in which it was argued that the sexualization of women was the true driver of an ordinance. The court found the argument unpersuasive and upheld the ordinance, Cummings reported.
Beyond that, Bush pressed Reid on what was prompting the proposed change.
“Can you give us the petitions of all the women in Evanston who are so upset that they can’t take their tops off at the beach?” he asked. “There are so many things that Evanston needs to do better, allowing women to be topless on the beach isn’t one of them,” he asserted.
“Whether it’s illegal, immoral, or whatever – do you think this is a good way you should be addressing your time as the representative of the Eighth Ward?”
Reid responded, “I think I have a legal duty to uphold the Constitution. I took an oath to the Constitution and I believe my constitutional obligation is to make sure that we do not have a double standard.”
“I don’t know why we are scared of women’s breasts,” he said. “Why, it’s only because men in our patriarchal system have decided that women’s bodies are more sexualized than men’s bodies.”