• LB Strong

Q&A With LF Mayor and LF City Manager on June 3 BLM Protest

Editor's note: The announcement of the June 3 Black Lives Matter protest and silent vigil on Market Square prompted a divisive uproar on social media among residents of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. In the days leading up to the event, people of all ages shared feelings and opinions that spanned the spectrum, and it seemed as if everyone who lives here (along with anyone who ever once lived here) had posted about the protest on Facebook.

Everyone except the leaders of the City of Lake Forest.

After the protest (which was peaceful), Lake Bluff Strong reached out to Lake Forest’s mayor, city manager and police chief to give them an opportunity to answer questions about the days leading up to the protest. We recruited Joey Goodsir, a recent Lake Forest High School graduate who was a co-editor of the school newspaper in 2019-20, to conduct the interview in person, after first crowd-sourcing questions from members of the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff News Group on Facebook.

Here is a transcript of Goodsir’s June 12 interview with Mayor George Pandaleon and City Manager Jason Wicha, which took place at a table in Market Square; Goodsir and LBStrong admin Adrienne Fawcett edited the transcript lightly for clarity. (An interview with LFPD Police Chief Karl Walldorf took place separately and will be posted here at a later date.)

If you have questions or would like additional information from the mayor or city manager, please reach out to them directly; you can find their email addresses on the city’s website.

LF Mayor George Pandaleon and City Manager Jason Wicha at a Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce event. Photo credit LF-LB Chamber of Commerce.

By Joey Goodsir

Question: How did you become aware of this BLM protest? What was the city’s process in communicating with organizers?

Mayor Pandaleon: “We first heard about it around noon on Monday, June 1. It was scheduled for Wednesday evening and, by that time, they already had 500 to 600 people on their Facebook page to whom it had already been announced – so it was out on Facebook and everywhere. We engaged with the organizers and they were very cooperative, but there was really never any discussion about stopping or rescheduling it.

The bottom line is, if somebody wants to get a milk crate and a bullhorn and go over to Market Square and start speaking about whatever they choose to speak about, they have every right to do that, and we have no right to stop them. The notion that we somehow could have just said “no” doesn’t really apply here.

But the organizers were very cooperative – the original plan was to march down Deerpath from the [Deer Path] Middle School and into Market Square. which would have had the effect of closing Deerpath, which from a public safety point of view was just not a good thing to do – especially with a large crowd – because that is the way police and fire get into Market Square. As a result, we worked with them to reroute the march. We also worked with them to change the timing a bit so that it would end in daylight and there would be separation between the event and any troublemakers that decided to infiltrate, which was something our police had been very well-schooled on from other police departments in the area.

They (local police departments) work very cooperatively, as they have input from all of the surrounding police forces. They were on task force assignments at Old Orchard, Glenview, and basically everywhere on the North Shore that had any kind of event or issue over the days (prior to the Lake Forest event). Those police forces assist us as well, so there is one big team of hundreds and hundreds of officers that can be connected at any one time. They knew what to look for and what the risks were, and changing the time and changing the path really were the two big changes that were made to ensure that the event was orderly, manageable, and that we could maintain security.”

Question: There is some confusion and debate among community members over how exactly the city can regulate a public protest/vigil/march. Can the City of Lake Forest regulate this kind of situation? If so, what is the process?

Mayor Pandaleon: “Normally if there is a public event and it involves city resources such as electricity, restroom facilities, and street closures, we would have a meeting or two with the organizers to coordinate that. Normally there is not a 48-hour window that we are dealing with. The organizers told (the city) flat out that they would go through with this whether the city cooperated with them or not – so there you have it.

City Manager Wicha: “I would just note that the Special Event Permit process we have is really meant for events where there is food or alcohol being sold, tents being erected, or generators are brought in to supply electricity – a peaceful demonstration of people exercising their opinions on political or social matters really doesn’t fall under that context.”

Question: By many accounts and looking back at this event relative to Lake Forest history, it seems that this protest was the largest one in city history. Has Lake Forest had to deal with any similar events like this in the past? If so, how was this process similar/different than those?

Mayor Pandaleon: “I don’t know how big it was, but there was one in 1967-68 that was organized by some students at Lake Forest College against the Vietnam War. I know a person who attended that and still lives in town – and it was a big deal at the time. She said her father was not at all happy that she was planning on going, but she had already gone as it went on for a while. There was also a smaller protest group seven or eight years ago (of people) who were unhappy with the plans of developing a park, and that was actually in my recollection. Obviously, however, this is not something that happens on a frequent basis in Lake Forest. It’s at least been 53 years since anything like this really happened.”

City Manager Wicha: “I think it’s fair to say, to the best of our knowledge, that it is the largest demonstration that the community has had.”

Mayor Pandaleon: “I don’t know how big the one was in the ‘60s, but it is obviously something that does not happen here frequently, and we also don’t frequently have somebody on a soapbox in Market Square with a bullhorn. It is rare to see this kind of firmament in town.”

Question: Considering how rare this event has been in the past, did the protest of last week impact how the city will handle these in the future?

Mayor Pandaleon: “We didn’t have a written game plan for this kind of event. I think in the current political climate it wouldn’t be a surprise for something like this to happen again, so we are in the process, and Jason [Wicha]’s team is in the process of doing an after-action review. We’ll have a more well-scripted game plan for handling these kinds of things in the future.

Having said that, these are normal roles for the city staff to play. (For the June 3rd event) everybody just kind of sprung into action and exercised their normal roles for large events. It was very organized, and that is part of the reason why I think the event was so successful – you had good security, good crowd management, and a resulting environment that was peaceful.”

Question: We talked about how the original plans adjusted after conversations between the city and organizers. Was that entirely between the city and organizers, or were there other factors and parties involved in those adjustments?

City Manager Wicha: “District 67 had expressed some concern about the event being held next to Deer Path Middle School, and that was conveyed to the organizers. As the mayor alluded to however, city staff also had concerns with that location notably due to the requirement of closing Deerpath Road for the march to end in Market Square. The organizers were very clear in communicating with staff that they had always intended for the event to finish at Market Square. So we had heard from the school and had expressed some of their concerns, but they were not intricately involved in many of the other planning discussions.”

Question: Did you hear from other towns on other protests beforehand? If so, how did this affect the city’s preparations?

Mayor Pandaleon: Constantly – through our police force who are on many emergency response task forces as I mentioned. Our police and detectives were out on task force assignments the whole weekend, so they were very familiar with everything that was happening around the region. We even had a number of them in Waukegan a few nights before when additional police forces were needed.”

Question: The protest included the presence of many other local and federal government officials, such as Rep. Brad Schneider, Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunnigham, State Rep. Bob Morgan, etc. Were City of Lake Forest officials consulted and asked to attend the protest?

Mayor Pandaleon: “We had a number of people there. The majority of the city council was there, and virtually all of the senior staff of the city was there. Unfortunately, being Mayor of Lake Forest is a volunteer job, and I have a real job that got in the way so I was unable to attend personally. The organizers asked me if I would like to speak, but it was on about three hours notice, and I had a business commitment that was rather important.

(One of the work commitments) that I had to deal with was over about halfway through (the protest), so through replays and watching some of it live I think I was able to see virtually the whole thing. I thought the speakers were very good by and large. I thought it was interesting that the Project H.O.O.D. Executive Director Pastor Corey Brooks made a comment in his talk that he was there because he was invited by one of his board members who lives here. That comment kind of went past a lot of people, but the fact of the matter is that this town has a huge tradition of philanthropy and civic involvement, and residents of Lake Forest have created some of the more powerful institutions that help people in North Chicago and Waukegan. I’m a member of the Church of St. Mary, and we have significant resources – time, money, and talent – that go to the Cristo Rey school in Waukegan, a parish in North Chicago in which we run a soup kitchen. This town is filled with people who are philanthropic, not only with Lake Forest but well beyond, including being on the board of Project H.O.O.D.

I actually heard that about 1,100 people had expressed their willingness to volunteer with Project H.O.O.D. after that talk. My point is that this is not new for this town. This notion that somehow we live in a bubble and we never leave the bubble is just not a true thing – people in this town are all over the metropolitan area doing socially relevant work and have been forever, going all the way back to the founders of the town.”

Question: One of the notable developments prior to the day was that businesses surrounding Market Square boarded their window prior to the event. Was that their own decision, or was the city involved and communicating with businesses on that?

Mayor Pandaleon: “We did not advise them to do that. We told them the event was happening, but they made their own decisions – each and every business – and that is actually why we saw some of them remain boarded up for the rest of the weekend. Bluemercury and Lululemon had both been targeted in other parts of the country, and they were more cautious on a corporate level.”

Question: One of the main purposes of the protest was to raise awareness of historic and current racial injustices and their prevalence on a local sphere – and to provoke tangible action to make improvements to these issues. Has the demonstration provoked any of those conversations or reforms on a city level since it has taken place? How does the City of Lake Forest plan to address this in the future?

Mayor Pandaleon: “I guess probably the most tangible result, and this has been based on input we’ve gotten from community members on some of the challenges to policing, is to go back and look at how Lake Forest is doing relative to those issues on how police should behave and train.

When we went back what we found, in fact, is that we have been on the leading edge of those best practices. For instance, de-escalation is something that the city brought in experts to train our police six or seven years ago, and the program that we created with those experts has been used all over the country. That’s one tangible result, but we will continue to focus on new areas and better ways to train.

Our police force does an awful lot of work that is better referred to as counseling than it is policing – they have to run the gamut and go all the way from dealing with someone having a mental episode to pulling somebody over on 41 who has weapons, drugs, and other people in the car – they really never know exactly what they are going to run into on a shift. But the other thing is, and the 1,100 people who volunteered for Project H.O.O.D. is a good example, is that people are voting with their feet and stepping up to do even more than they already have been doing to alleviate some of the suffering that is out there.”

Question: What is the police budget percentage? Can you share details on how the funding is used within the department? Will there be any changes?

Mayor Pandaleon: “Our police budget is relatively small for a community our size – it is about 13% of our city budget. That doesn’t just cover the cost of the staff, which is the biggest part – just paying the police officers, but it also covers things like the Citizens Police Academy, Safety Days, and a lot of community outreach.

We also have student resource officers in the schools, so a lot of it comes back into the community in the form of services the police provide in addition to protecting us, of which they of course do a wonderful job.

Question: There were many residents who expressed support of the cause itself, but safety (due to concern of potential looting/violence) and health concerns (over COVID-19) created reservations against the event for them. There are also many store owners facing criticism for boarding up. Since there was division over the protest, does the city – and do you, as mayor – have plans, to help unite the community on these topics?

Mayor Pandaleon: “I think the community ultimately was pretty united coming out of this. I think there was a lot of fear going into it, but I can tell you I had 100% confidence in the city staff and our public safety to make sure that this was organized and executed peacefully. Not everybody is aware of how sophisticated and professional our public safety teams are, as they are expertly trained and well-prepared for this, and it all came off beautifully on very short notice.

The only email I got the next morning was from somebody complaining about his next door neighbor’s grass being too long, so I think there was a return to normalcy pretty quickly once everybody could breathe a sigh of relief that nothing had gone wrong. We were very careful about how we managed it, and the decisions we made were all with a view toward maintaining maximum public safety and standing on strong legal ground.”

City Manager Wicha: I’ll make it clear too, that as well trained and prepared as our police department and other staff were for the event, a lot of the credit really goes to the organizers and attendees. This demonstration was peaceful because no one was here with intent to do harm – it was about recognizing a moment and it was done in a very responsible manner. We are certainly very appreciative not only of the organizers who did a tremendous job with it, but all of those who were in attendance too.”

Mayor Pandaleon: The organizers made it very clear from the beginning that they wanted this to be peaceful and they wanted this to be positive, and they were willing to work with us in some respects that were most critical from our perspective to maintain public safety and allow this to happen in a peaceful way. I also observed the same responsibility – everybody was wearing a mask, and compliance was 99 percent or 100 percent. With a lot of the marches I had seen across the country, there were a lot of people who were marching for one cause and ignoring another with a lack of compliance on that front. This was very different from that.”

City Manager Wicha: “I think that demonstrates the attendees’ respect for one another to come to this. Everyone was here for the same purpose and common cause, but I think people were also very respectful of one another.”