The City Council will consider a recommendation to purchase barriers from Meridian Rapid Defense Group. Credit: Meridian Defense Group image

Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee voted March 22 to back city staff’s request to allocate federal American Recovery Plan Act funds to purchase security barriers to protect the perimeters of public events, though likely at less than the $612,821 cost and 60 total barriers officials are seeking.

Committee members voted unanimously in support of moving the issue to the full City Council for a contract on the barriers to be considered at its April 10 meeting.

Their motion, though, called for the City Council “to identify some middle ground” between 16 barriers at a cost of around $250,000 compared to the 60 barriers costing more than $600,000.

Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward), speaking in support of the purchase, acknowledged that the likelihood of “anything bad happening,” requiring the use of the barriers, “is hopefully very, very low.”

“But the likelihood of us needing to do whatever we can do to protect the public and special events and make people feel safe – there’s a 100% chance of that happening,” he said, speaking in favor.

He also spoke of the importance of the purchase in connection with the recently issued report on the city’s business districts, Evanston Thrives, and its emphasis on the importance of special events.

“Not only the ones that are currently on our calendar,” he pointed out, “but kind of reinvigorating some ones that need to happen, that people miss and that we need to do more of.”

The request for ARPA funds is one of a number that City Council members are mulling, with groups vying for the remaining roughly $7 million of $43.1 million in funds the city was awarded in May 2021.

Members of the city’s Special Events Committee, in conjunction with the Evanston Police and Fire Departments and Public Works Agency, requested the Economic Development Committee consider purchase of the 60 Meridian Archer 1200 vehicle barriers for use at approved City of Evanston events held on public property.

City staff would like the steel barriers, which weigh between 700 and 800 pounds and can be wheeled in place, to replace their current system. Currently, officials rely on large snow plows and other heavy city equipment to block street access to special events.

In a memo on the issue at a previous Economic Development Committee meeting, Audrey Thompson, the city’s parks and recreation director, spoke of the importance of added controls in light of the limited personnel the city currently has.

“Roadway security and crowd control are an increasing concern due to the rise in violence and mass casualty incidents across the United States,” she said. “Evanston police officers are generally required by way of a ‘police detail’ to close streets and provide a security presence at large-scale events. We have limited personnel, which compromises the ability to provide protections, and we have a growing demand to provide event security.”

“The goal of this proposal is to establish consistency for special event needs that will protect our liabilities,” she wrote, “and provide a greater security footprint at local events that will not be affected by staffing irregularities in the involved city departments.”

Being proactive

Evanston Police Sgt. Scott Sophier, a member of the city’s Special Events Committee, told committee members that Meridian Rapid Defense Group, the California-based company the city is considering, lent use of the barriers at the city’s holiday tree-lighting ceremony last year.

“It’s unfortunate to be here having these conversations today about this,” he told committee members. “While nothing is foolproof, we do want people to feel safe and comfortable coming out to our public events. We want those events to be well-attended.”

In discussion, Council Member Krissie Harris (2nd Ward) joined Nieuwsma, emphasizing the need for the city to be proactive – “and not wait for something that goes wrong and say, ‘oops, we needed those.’”

Council Member Melissa Wynne (3rd Ward) envisioned additional use of the barriers, for instance on streets, citing some long-range sewer work on Judson Avenue that created a gaping 20-foot vault in the road.

Though a sign announced that the road was closed, “every single day cars drove around this sign and right up to the 20-foot wall,” Wynne recalled. “So they had to start stationing somebody at the intersection to stop people from coming through. So you know, two or three of those [barriers] right there would have saved a lot of money on that job,” she concluded.

Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward), though, raised concern about the cost of the barriers in light of the city’s other needs.

“I can see much better uses for that money, for mental health services, for things that will actually make a larger difference day to day,” he said. “I think our world seems a much smaller place now because of social media and the internet, and I think we’re thinking that’s there’s more danger [than actually exists]. I’d really love to see if there’s more quantifiable data on what the actual risk.”

The issue will go next to the full City Council, with staff seeking approval of a contract to purchase the barriers at the April 10 City Council meeting.

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.

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