Fourth of July safety and security concerns raised

CHESTER – The Fourth of July is Chester’s annual moment in the sun, but City Council doesn’t want safety and security concerns to eclipse the fun.

Councilman Dennis Murray said Monday he’s concerned about two issues related to the Fourth of July celebration: The safety of runners in the 5K Freedom Run and the practice of allowing open containers at Chester City Park on that day.

Murray said he was uneasy with the way runners mixed with traffic on Carolina Avenue.

“That was my biggest concern. We were fortunate no one was hurt,” he said, noting the race also raises liability issues for the city.

“I don’t think that would qualify for insurance coverage,” Murray said.

Council members discussed the possibility of rerouting traffic onto Indiana Avenue or rerouting the race onto more residential streets.

Murray said the amount of cleanup of beer bottles and cans required this year suggests open drinking at the city park is getting out of hand.

Police Chief Ken Thorn said he, too, has heard complaints about open containers and thinks the practice should be curtailed.

“There’s no way to stop it all, but we should just try to control it as much as we can,” he said.

Thorn said he believes the Fourth of July celebration is “slipping away from being a family-oriented event and turning into one big party. … The open drinking in front of families was the major complaint I heard. … We should leave the park for families and to enjoy the concert.”

In remarks to council on Monday, Thorn accepted partial responsibility for the lack of a law enforcement presence on the Fourth.

He said he had three city officers on duty that day, as well as help from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. Although only one reserve deputy was on duty because “no one else volunteered,” two regular deputies served from noon to 8 p.m. and three midnight shift deputies assisted by starting their shifts early, Thorn said.

“It was my fault. I should have asked you guys (on council) for help. We were inundated with calls. We were spread so thin,” Thorn said.

Mayor Ken Morris said the Fourth of July event “came off OK,” but its growth means that it will require more organization in the future.

“As this thing gets bigger and bigger, there needs to be more people involved,” he said.

Council members said the popularity of the event, although good for the city, also has a downside.

Murray, who also serves on the park board, said the city’s website got 500 hits in the month leading up to the Fourth.

“We are getting looked at a lot as a destination,” he said.

“Along the parade route, there were thousands more people than I’ve ever seen before,” Morris said.

“It’s a compliment to the city that people are coming here from all over,” City Solicitor April Raines said.

Chester Celebration Committee Chairman David Nurmi said council’s concerns, while well-taken, are more for council to address.

“I’m open to any suggestions that come down the pike,” he said.

Nurmi said the open container policy has had the tacit approval of the city administration and the police department since the celebration began in 2007.

“They’re not arresting people for having an open container on that day,” he said.

As for this year, Nurmi said, “I was there until 12:30 a.m. I took a walk through the VFW and the American Legion. I really didn’t see any issues that had to be addressed that were of an untoward nature. There was drinking going on, but I didn’t notice a lot of rowdiness.”

Chester Fire Chief John Hissam said he doesn’t share council’s concerns.

“Their concern over something like this is baseless because there’s security everywhere. Everybody’s here to see that nothing like that is going on. I don’t think it’s a major concern to be upset about. I think it’s well enough in hand,” he said.

Although the Chester Volunteer Fire Department holds the title to Chester City Park, it leases the park to the city, which operates it through a park board.