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McLean County Board Members Raise Concerns About Proposed Rules On Public Gatherings

Ryan Denham
Hundreds took part in a community gathering on May 31 outside the McLean County Law and Justice Center to protest the killing of George Floyd.

McLean County Board members are raising a collective eyebrow at a proposed ordinance that would regulate public gatherings on county property.

The proposed ordinance, which the board's property committee tabled during a meeting on Monday, would require 30 to 60 day notice of planned events. Gatherings would have to be confined to courthouse grounds, unless organizers can show the space isn’t adequate.

At unauthorized gatherings, including marches, parades, or any other demonstrations, organizers would face fines of up to $500 and participants could face fines of up to $100.

At the meeting, some board members raised concerns over restrictions on First Amendment rights, arguing the lead time to lawfully hold a demonstration could prevent organizers from responding to current events. Others had questions about the process to bring the proposal before the board.

Board member Josh Barnett thinks some of the provisions need to be looked at.

“Whether it’s a gathering of Black Lives Matter or it’s the McLean County Republican Party holding a press conference in front of the old courthouse, we need to make sure that any use of county property is fair and equitable for anyone who wants to use it or have an event there,” Barnett said.

Board member Jacob Beard said the proposal should have first been routed to the property committee, which he vice-chairs. Instead, it was listed on the stand-up agenda, buried among a number of other items. Board members said stand-up committees are generally reserved for routine business.

Beard agreed the ordinance warrants more discussion.

“My hope is that we come to a consensus on this. I would not want this to become a thing that we can’t uniformly agree on. We’re probably not doing our jobs if this becomes anything like that, because it really should just be a policy for how to make our public space available for different groups,” Beard said.

McLean County Administrator Camille Rodriguez said she understands the board’s confusion about why the ordinance appeared to surpass committee. She said instead of appearing at a scheduled committee hearing, the ordinance was instead listed under the property committee section of the agenda.

“I think that that is where—rightly so, I believe—all county board members felt like, ‘Hey, let’s use the process for what it was intended for. We don’t have to vote on it now. We can wait and we can talk about it at property committee in September,’” Rodriguez said.

The ordinance was an initiative of Rodriguez and McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp. They said defined rules on public gatherings are long overdue. In the past, confused organizers have reached out to both offices, as well as facilities management, to try to secure a location.

“Essentially, there was no policy,” Rodriguez said. “As long ago as even the beginning of my tenure, I had hoped to address this by having some sort of policy through an ordinance. Now, of course, we have had so many more events occur on county property. Some of the folks that are holding those are asking for permission and others do not.”

Knapp said he wrote the ordinance pulling pieces from the City of Bloomington’s parade ordinance, as well as the city of Chicago’s, “slapped it together” and sent it to county board members.

“That was a starting place,” Knapp said. “It’s their ordinance, they can do with it what they choose. If they want to put an avenue in for somebody to hold a rally within 24 hours notice—or 24 minutes notice—that’s their business.”

In recent months, Knapp said officials have seen a number of demonstrations, one of which cost the county when public property wasn’t returned to its original condition afterwards. Plus, he said, messaging at some of these demonstrations could affect jury deliberations, with jurors coming in and out of the courthouse on weekdays.

Knapp added there’s nothing unusual about the timing of the ordinance; it was just high time standards were set.

“If anybody wants to ascribe some type of nefarious connotation to that, I think they’re just kind of grasping at straws,” he said.

Rodriguez said the application process and fine structure are “certainly up for a healthy debate” that will hopefully reach a compromise where board members can assure the public has access to facilities, while also allowing county administration to plan accordingly.

“Because the other side of this is that I have to ensure that—if the event would like water or electricity—have to make sure that county facility staff is prepared and maybe even on call over a weekend to address any issues that the event holders might have,” Rodriquez said. “Certainly then, it’s nice for us to be able to be planful.”

The proposed ordinance is expected to be considered by the property committee at its September meeting.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.