DeKalb alderman storms out after heated debate on controversial downtown nuisance gatherings

Final vote on controversial nuisance gathering ordinance amendment expected at DeKalb City Council’s March 11 meeting

Seventh Ward Alderman John Walker speak out against a proposed nuisance gathering ordinance during a Feb. 26, 2024, meeting of the DeKalb City Council at the DeKalb Public Library, 309 Oak St.

DeKALB – A divided DeKalb City Council this week backed a controversial downtown nuisance gathering ordinance, although discussion turned heated as 7th Ward Alderman John Walker stormed out of the room.

In a phone call Wednesday after the meeting, Walker said he was upset with how he handled the situation.

Walker was referring to the moment immediately after the vote, when he erupted in anger, directed an insult at Mayor Cohen Barnes and left the meeting room.

Barnes responded in the moment and said, “Really? That’s how you’re handling this?”

Walker returned to his seat after less than a minute.

“I was real upset with myself about how I let a group of people get to me,” Walker said Wednesday. “That’s what I’m upset about. I’m upset about how I reacted in that situation knowing what I know about people and what they think about [minorities]. For that, I’m highly disappointed in myself.”

Walker voted against the city’s proposal, which would give DeKalb police the power to fine or arrest anyone gathering downtown not following the law.

City staff proposed the ordinance after they said residents voiced concerns about people loitering in downtown parking spaces, drinking and littering.

First Ward Alderwoman Carolyn Zasada and 6th Ward Alderman Mike Verbic also voted against the measure. It is expected to be up for a final vote March 11.

On Monday, Walker said he opposed the ordinance because he believes it could be used as a tool by police to target minorities unfairly.

I was real upset with myself about how I let a group of people get to me. That’s what I’m upset about. I’m upset about how I reacted in that situation knowing what I know about people and what they think about [minorities]. For that, I’m highly disappointed in myself.”

—  John Walker, 7th Ward alderman

Walker said he believes DeKalb police already have the necessary equipment to do their jobs.

He suggested that, if anything, the city should consider putting up more lights and installing more cameras downtown.

“Nobody on the council will ever feel what I do as a minority when it comes to being harassed for doing absolutely [nothing],” Walker said. “We have all these amendments and all these policies in the world, but at the same time, for minorities that honestly don’t do anything wrong, that honestly live the way that we’re supposed to, we still get harassed with all this.

“It’s not that I want to make everything a racial issue. But when you sit and you hear a group of people talking about [how] they’re scared of going into a parking lot, I just don’t understand what people are scared of.”

This came on the heels of a racially charged debate on a nuisance gathering ordinance put together to discourage the occurrence of what city staff said is “uninvited pop-up parties” in the downtown area.

Barnes said he invited the community to weigh in on how city leaders “should do this” and said city staff intend to compile some statistics on what he called safety issues plaguing the downtown area.

“I hear you,” Barnes said to Walker. “But we’ll get the data of the fights and the shooting, and of the reality of the violence that is actually happening downtown.”

Downtown DeKalb looking west down Lincoln Highway from Third Street Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

The ordinance proposal comes weeks after a downtown shooting reported in the parking lot near City Hall and Lord Stanley’s and the annex, 142 E. Lincoln Highway. The buildings share a joint parking lot in the back.

Authorities said an overnight shooting outside the bar left one injured but not hospitalized.

Police Chief David Byrd previously said authorities were working to bring potential charges against those involved in the altercation and that the incident was under investigation.

Fifth Ward Alderman Scott McAdams, who voted in favor of the ordinance and whose ward includes the downtown area in question, said he’s received phone calls from business owners complaining about “minor transgressions.”

He said one business owner saw someone defecating outside their business.

City Manager Bill Nicklas urged the council to support the ordinance amendment, saying that he thinks it’s a reasonable request. He said city staff spot public nuisance gatherings nightly, and the ordinance does not refer to one establishment in particular in the downtown area.

“We’ve tried all the obvious things, and we run squad cars through as we can, but there are other places to be,” Nicklas said. “We want to patrol proactively, so we’re not responding to calls but we’re checking out businesses. That used to be something that we did, and we’re trying to get back to that.

“We’re trying to go to all parts of town, not just one part of town or two parts of town. So it’s just a tool.”

City staff said that amending the existing nuisance gathering ordinance is necessary to give the police department tools to use in situations where at least one person may be disruptively intoxicated or belligerent and is gathering downtown in public and/or private parking lots and streets.

Anyone who commits an offense in violation of this ordinance is subject to a mandatory minimum fine of $500, city documents show.

Barnes said he supports the amended ordinance and what it aims to accomplish.

“The parking lot behind City Hall, in particular, gets rough,” Barnes said. “I’ve had personal complaints about what we’re doing about it. … We’ve had multiple fights there that we’ve had to respond to. So this is really just trying to make sure we give our officers a few more tools.”

Third Ward Alderman Tracy Smith, a retired DeKalb police officer, said he doesn’t feel the police department has enough tools at its disposal.

“If we want a nice downtown and people to move, we’ve got to do something,” Smith said. “Yes, I’ve been down there a lot. This happens. We have video cameras. It happens.”

Not everyone agreed with the ordinance proposal, however.

Zasada said she believes the City Council needed to review the matter a little more closely.

“I do think that this is challenging because it likely does target the wrong populations,” Zasada said. “I think that that’s the challenge with this, trying to clean it up to get it to a spot where it’s not targeting minority groups. I think that that’s really important.”

Walker said he couldn’t back the nuisance gathering ordinance amendment the way it was presented to the council.

“They’re going to mess with minority kids that look like my son, and those kids are going to be the one to get focused on, no matter if they’re doing something or not,” Walker said. “The police have enough tools in their toolbox.”

City Attorney Matt Rose said he wanted to reassure those wary of throwing their support behind the nuisance gathering ordinance amendment.

“This is nothing new is what I want to say,” Rose said. “It’s there. We just added some additional offenses, like fighting or discharge of a firearm.”

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