Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Commissioners grapple over downtown security measures, hiring minority contractors

Mayor Lester Miller’s law changes following recent homicide and shootings drew allegations of targeting African Americans

The Macon-Bibb County Commission split along racial lines in spirited debate Tuesday before approving rolling back closing time at local bars to 2 a.m. and banning food trucks operating on public property between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

A proposal to ban more than 10 people from gathering in public right-of-ways between midnight and 6 a.m. without a permit was tabled until a public hearing can be held.

Following the Aug. 20 fatal shooting of 30-year-old Robert Evans at about 4 a.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Mayor Lester Miller worked with county attorneys to draft law changes to curtail people from congregating in the early morning hours on the sidewalk, such has been the case recently between Cherry and Poplar streets.

Despite opposition from the four Black commissioners calling for more time to consider the changes and allow for public input, the Commission passed the early closing time and new food truck restrictions by votes of 5-4.

Commissioner Al Tillman, who works as a promoter and said he sides with entrepreneurs and businesses, wants people to be able to “get their groove on” like they do in other cities.

“When it comes to the violence and the shootings, Mr. Mayor, we all know this, 93% of the shootings in this community happened with African Americans. So, when we start regulating entrepreneurship, businesses, food trucks, we’re targeting a certain demographic,” Tillman said. “And the African Americans sitting in here, and out there, go on social media, they say, ‘Did you see what the commission did?’ They’re African Americans, all their friends are African Americans, and it looks bad just on us as African Americans.”

Tillman said Miller was losing his “cool white boy” status with this crackdown.

“I can be non-cool and save the six Black people who lost their lives on that corner, or I can sit up here and be cool and let them die without doing what I can,” Miller replied. “I don’t have a gun walking around downtown telling people what to do, but I can legislate.”

Commissioner Virgil Watkins said the law changes do not get to the root of the problem.

“We lack appropriate law enforcement providing crowd control to large groups of people,” Watkins said.

The mayor said, “I can’t just sit by and point a finger at the sheriff when there are some things I can do to save people’s lives. You’re right, most of them are young Black males that don’t look like me, but I can do my part to make sure that they can grow up to be cool, too.”

Food trucks and crowds

Food trucks must be permitted under health department regulations and they are illegal in downtown already, NewTown Macon CEO Josh Rogers told the Downtown Macon Community Association meeting Tuesday morning.

While he supports a thriving nightlife as part of NewTown’s goals for downtown, Rogers favors the law changes to protect residents and the retail establishments.

“We’ve had huge crowds between, say, midnight and four in the morning, and I think we’ve had 18 shootings this year in that one block, which has not been prominently reported,” Rogers said. “The culture that’s developed down there is really unusual.”

Throngs of folks were congregating along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. the night of last month’s killing and a food truck was illegally set up in the vicinity. Miller said the trucks incentivize bar-leaving patrons to linger and loiter.

During the Commission meeting, food truck operator Tomeka Edwards said she has a full-time job, but as a single mother, she supports her family by moonlighting with her food truck. Late night hours are her only opportunity to operate.

“With you guys imposing this, you’re taking money out of my pocket and food out of my kids’ mouths. I just wanted you to be aware of that,” Edwards said.

Larry Wilson, who said he has the longest running food truck in the city operating about 12 years, said he first did it the wrong way, but has since gotten the necessary permits and commissary base of operations.

“To stop at 10 o’clock at night, that stops a lot of us,” Wilson told the Commission. “There are so many food trucks that are doing the right things, and we’re being punished for something somebody else is going through. That ain’t right.”

Although the downtown violence inspired the changes, the ordinances cover the whole county.

When NewTown began promoting downtown, there were only three bars, Rogers told the downtown business owners. Now there are 36 with a capacity to serve 7,000 people.

“We have got to get control of this situation because the thousand people who live downtown are the life blood of downtown,” Rogers said. “If I’ve got to pick between nightlife and all the apartments and retailers and everything else that’s drive the majority of revenue downtown, I’m picking everybody else and it has come to a point where we’re having to make some of those difficult decisions.”

Like Watkins, Rogers also sees the need for enhanced nightlife security for downtown. Currently, only two officers are permanently assigned to the Central Business District, although extra details have been patrolling in recent weeks.

“I like nightlife. I think it’s a really important part of a vibrant city,” Rogers said. “But if we’re going to have it, it’s going to have to be managed more like downtown Athens or Bourbon Street. I mean, these places where they’re serving thousands of people. And that just requires a different kind of management experience and it’s going to take an enormous investment to do that.”

Toward the conclusion of the Commission committee meeting, the mayor said he would call a public hearing on the new ordinance that prohibits more than 10 people from congregating in public right-of-ways between midnight and 6 a.m., unless they acquire a permit for protests or free speech.

Maria de la Sierra had already signed up to make public comments, and was allowed to voice her concerns in advance of that public hearing.

“We’re presuming that anyone that is gathering past 12 o’clock, or exiting at a bar, is guilty. This fundamentally violates the basic premise of our legal system. It’s indisputably a curfew,” De la Sierra said. “We are really targeting our ethnic communities, our ethnic citizens, and the clientele.”

Also during the Tuesday meeting, Watkins probed why minorities and women are not better represented in awarding county contracts. He wondered about the progress of the county’s Small Business Vendor Program to encourage more minority participation in the bid process.

“Something is happening that we’re only getting one response (to bids) for cutting grass,” Watkins said. “Whatever our reach-out is, it’s not connecting with a large number of our businesses.”

A report on the status of the vendor program will come next month, Miller said, but he added that staffing shortages appear to be the problem for county vendors as well as other private businesses.

“No one wants to work,” Miller said. “We can’t make them come apply for the jobs we have and fill out the paperwork.”

Here are the highlights of the rest of the meeting’s agenda including acceptance of a $12.5 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to extend the runway at Middle Georgia Regional Airport.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.

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