This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2011 - In a move that caught the audience by surprise, University City officials voted unanimously Monday night to scrap a controversial bill aimed at controlling crowds in the Loop.
Following the vote, Mayor Shelley Welsch said the action added to the urgency of setting up two new groups, one local and one regional, to address issues involving youths in the Loop and the metropolitan area.
She said City Manager Lehman Walker would announce next week the formation of a local group to seek answers to teen-related issues in University City. The mayor also said she expected to convene a regional group within two weeks to discuss similar issues across the metropolitan area.
"The problem is regional," she said, adding that if kids didn't congregate in University City, they might decide to gather in Grand Center or some other popular spots in St. Louis.
The council had been expected to keep the crowd-control bill alive for at least another week of debate. But almost as soon as the mayor began the discussion, Councilman Arthur Sharpe Jr. offered a motion first to table the legislation and then to kill it. His proposal got unanimous support.
He said he offered both motions after hearing police say that "they have enough tools in the toolbox" to handle incidents involving crowds in the Loop.
Welsch had defended the legislation as a way to help police control crowds during especially busy periods in the Loop. The legislation, Bill 9112, would have made it unlawful for any person "singly or in concert with others, to stand, loiter or walk upon any public sidewalk or street so as to obstruct or unreasonably interfere with the use thereof."
When first introduced several weeks ago, the bill didn't seem to draw many objections. The mayor and council began to rethink the provision after the ACLU of Eastern Missouri criticized it. One ACLU official said earlier Monday that the provision was so vague that it would mean anyone who stopped to admire a star on the sidewalk in front of Blueberry Hill could be arrested under the proposed ordinance on charges of blocking traffic.
Welsch said some had felt the proposal was "targeting one group of people over another, but it's not." She said the idea was that "police needed to have one ordinance in hand when addressing movement or non-movement, not just of youth, but everybody when the Loop gets crowded."
Among those praising the vote were some members of Masterpeace, a new student group organized to address youth violence and advocate for more opportunities for young people. Its members clapped in response to the vote to kill the bill, but some members were displeased that the council agreed to a number of relatively small spending items. These included $100,000 for public communications and marketing, and as much as $30,000 for a new microphone system
"We have very few activities for young people," said Masterpeace member Amethyst Brown, 20. "As far as the budget is concerned, it's preposterous to spend $100,000 for mass communications and not spend more on youth programs. The programs are needed because youths have nothing to do and they need jobs and work experience."
The mayor said better public relations was in the best interest of University City. She said the city didn't do enough to promote itself and hadn't done so for about a decade. Other council members agreed, but some questioned how much should be allocated to marketing. "Two or three more kids (in the employment program) are worth more than a microphone," said Councilman Byron Price. "I know these are two more kids who won't be on the street."
At another point, city manager Walker quipped that the council would next take up the "most popular proposal," the idea of paid parking after dark on lots behind businesses along Delmar. Actually, Walker was proposing to strip the paid-parking plan from the budget. It was one issue that drew no opposition.