Equity and Empowerment Commission member Alejandra Ibañez Thursday night sharply criticized the city's decision to park a Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management command van at last weekend's Custer Fair.
Ibañez said she and many other residents feared that the vehicle actually belonged to the federal Department of Homeland Security, which operates the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service, and that it would be used as part of President Trump's threatened campaign to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
The county agency actually has no role in immigration enforcement.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the van was parked at the south end of the fair site on Chicago Avenue in part to serve as a physical barrier to anyone who might try to drive a car up the street to plow into fairgoers in some sort of terror attack.
Bobkiewicz says that given recent events around the world it would be irresponsible for the city to not take precautions against such attacks, even though the actual risk is likely quite small.
After the controversy arose on the fair's first day Saturday, the van was moved to a side street and replaced with a city dump truck to serve as a barricade.
A view inside the county's van.
The county van provides a variety of communication tools, including real-time monitoring of weather conditions. Several times in recent years powerful storms have caused damage at summer festivals in Evanston.
Evanston Now emailed County Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston this morning to ask whether the county might consider renaming its agency to avoid such confusion in the future. If we hear back from him, we'll update this story.
Update 4:40 p.m.: In a phone call this afternoon Suffredin said the county is considering renaming the local emergency management agency to drop "Homeland Security" from its name.
He says the current name was adopted during the Bush administration after 9/11, in part because the county agency is authorized to receive grant funds from the federal homeland security agency.
The logo used on the truck that appeared in Evanston and the county's two other similar vehicles was consciously designed to resemble that of the federal agency. The plan, Suffredin said, now is to at least switch to a logo that matches that of other county agencies.
He said the county doesn't staff the vans, but instead lets officials from local municipalities drive an available van from a county storage site and staff the vans with municipal employees during special events or emergency situations.
He said Evanston officials erred in positioning the van so prominently at Custer Fair. "They should be on the periphery, where they won't attract a crowd," he said, adding that using the expensive van as a barrier was also a mistake.
Years ago, Suffredin said, the emergency management function was housed in the county sheriff's office, but it was moved into a different county unit to avoid having it appear to be a police function.
But he said more steps may need to be taken now to avoid having it seem threatening. For example, he said, he's suggested that the next time the county buys one of the vans it would be better to paint it white than the dark grey color used for the existing vans.
He said the name change for the county emergency management agency could be approved by the county board by later this summer.