Special events taxing police, village resources

Calls to reexamine planning process

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By BILL DWYER

As the traditionally heavy schedule of September special events unfolds in Oak Park, police officials are expressing some concern over the increasingly heavy scheduling demands that such activities place on them. Department officials say they would like to see a reassessment of how the planning and approval process for such activities is handled. That opinion appears to be supported by others both inside village hall, as well as in the business community.

Three major events will take place this Saturday, including the long awaited grand re-opening of Barrie Park from 2 p.m. to past 9 p.m., the three day Harrison Street Arts Fair, which on Saturday will run from noon to 10 p.m., and a Peace Fair in Scoville Park from noon to 5 p.m.

"This upcoming week (end) is particularly taxing," said Police Chief Rick Tanksley.

In addition to those major events, there are smaller fund raisers planned by the Oak Park and River Forest Day Nursery and the 19th Century Women's Club, as well as a 5 K walk in mid-Oak Park sponsored by the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. While no direct police presence will be stationed at those three activities, police say they need to provide at least a drive by presence.

Whatever special events police may have to cover on any given day, they must still also handle a variety of routine, everyday policing tasks.

"We still have calls for service, we still have traffic accidents," said Tanksley.

All that activity on top of routine policing tasks will require police to both carefully redeploy resources, and to arrange for added resources if needed. Police officials decline to get very specific about how they will accomplish such redeployment, though Deputy Chief Bob Scianna said that plans are in place to cover everything.

"We're going to be busy, but we'll handle it," he said, adding that at least one deputy chief will be on duty all weekend.

Beyond the heavy event schedule, Tanksley and Scianna point out that this weekend is also the fourth anniversary of September 11, a fact which may place yet more demands on police resources. Should the Department of Homeland Security raise the national alert level, Oak Park will be required to respond with additional security at rapid transit stops.

"That's at least five, maybe six (additional) officers," said Tanksley.

Things certainly won't be any easier the following week, with a pair of three day street events planned Friday through Sunday. The Avenue business district has planned a Harvest Sidewalk Sale in the area around Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, while Downtown Oak Park has its expansive Oktoberfest in the Downtown area. Besides food sales and live music, Oktoberfest will have beer and wine sales that will need to be monitored.

Such activities have been increasing in recent years, police and village officials say.

Last Friday Village Clerk Sandra Sokol opened a wide file drawer in village hall for a reporter. Inside were tabbed folders representing the dozens of groups that have requested permits for special events recently.

"People have no idea how much time and staff effort goes into some of these events," she said.

"Over the last five years, the number of special events has risen in the village each year," said Tanksley, though he's quick to note that he's not complaining.

"We love special events," said the Oak Park native and resident. "We love to have parties in the park and people exercising their constitutional rights. Not only does it publicize what a great town Oak Park is, it brings people together."

But Tanksley stressed that he wants to be able to make sure that his department is able to provide the sort of security and service those events deserve, saying, "We'd just like to be involved in the planning."

Tanksley said that while anyone wanting to schedule an event has to contact the Village Clerk's office, there isn't any formal approval. Or disapproval.

"It's really more a matter of 'For your information," rather than an approval process," he said. "And it's usually the police who are the bad guys, who say, 'Wait a minute, we can't do that.'"

Police aren't the only ones asked to provide additional service for special events.

Sokol said that many village departments find themselves dealing with special events, including public works, fire, health, law and building and standards, as well as the park district.

Sokol produced a six page form that must be filled out and submitted to her office when seeking permission for a special event. Such details as traffic barricades, police coverage, food and liquor, trash receptacles, temporary structures, portable toilet facilities and insurance must be carefully considered. What hasn't been considered are the numerous and often considerable costs related to such events that the village must often absorb. Police overtime costs, in particular, can be considerable.

"We're going to start asking," Sokol said of possible fees for such services.

David King owns two businesses on Harrison Street and is president of the Harrison Street Business Alliance (HSBA). While he said that there is a need to streamline the event permit application process, he appreciates the challenges police face, and said he is willing to accept reasonable limits.

"I think that would be a reasonable thing to have happen," he said of setting limits on the number of activities on any given weekend. "You only have so much staff available. (Police and others) need to be able to determine the acceptable amount of what's happening so they can do an adequate job of providing services."

At the same time, King, while expressing overall satisfaction with the process, said that the village has had "communication problems" at times when working with area groups, and that the process can become overly complicated.

"I think that the overall process of planning an event could be simplified," he said.

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