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Akron City Council members say mayor's cancellation of large gatherings was 'his decision alone'

Akron council president Margo Sommerville addresses some of her concerns ahead of the vote to approve the city's 2024 operating budget on March 25, 2024. Council unanimously approved the budget.
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Council President Margo Sommerville addresses some of her concerns ahead of the vote to approve the city's 2024 operating budget on March 25, 2024. Several members of City Council, including Sommerville, wrote a letter to Mayor Shammas Malik asking to cancel several Juneteenth events.

Akron City Council members have criticized Mayor Shammas Malik’s decision to cancel all events on city property over the weekend, saying it was “his decision alone.”

Malik canceled 11 events Friday evening after he received a letter from eight council members calling it “irresponsible” to hold city-sanctioned events while the suspect or suspects in a recent mass shooting are still at large, he said during a Friday news conference.

No “credible threats” had been reported, Malik added.

In a Saturday news release, council members wrote that their concern was that there was an insufficient police presence planned for the Juneteenth events.

“We want to be clear that we did not request that the mayor cancel all large gatherings on city-owned property,” council members wrote in the release. “We wrote a letter expressing our concern about the hosting of the Juneteenth events after an earlier attempt to convey the magnitude of those concerns, particularly about the inequity of the police staff ratio for the different events were unfruitful.”

Eight city council members signed the initial letter: Council President Margo Sommerville, Council Vice President Jeff Fusco, Ward 2 Councilmember Phil Lombardo, Ward 1 Councilmember Sam DeShazior, Ward 10 Councilmember Sharon Connor, Ward 6 Councilmember Brad McKitrick, Ward 4 Councilmember Jan Davis and Ward 5 Councilmember Johnnie Hannah.

While the initial letter specifically asked for three Juneteenth events to be canceled, Malik said during the Friday news conference that it would be unfair to cancel some events but not others.

“What I'm not going to do is sit up here and say the Juneteenth events are canceled, but other large gatherings can go on fine because the reasoning in the letter applies to all large gatherings, right?” Malik said.

Council members were specifically concerned about Juneteenth events because “gun play and gun violence is an everyday reality in the African American community,” they wrote in the Saturday release.

“Gun violence is impacting the African American community in Akron at an alarming rate,” council members wrote. “Those who do not share such lived experiences are challenged to fully understand and appreciate the fear and trauma experienced by those for which gun violence is an everyday occurrence.”

Ward 4 Councilmember Jan Davis, who represents Akron’s west side where two of the Juneteenth events was planned, added that the mayor did not consult with council members about the safety plan for the weekend.

“The bottom line is that the request was to pause events due to the inequity of the police presence,” Davis said in the release. “I learned that Mayor Malik had been in conversations with the event organizers, but not one time did he or his staff reach out to me as the Ward representative.”

Akron Police Chief Brian Harding said Friday he was “comfortable” with the safety plan he and other safety officials put together ahead of the events.

That was reiterated by city officials Monday in an emailed statement to Ideastream Public Media.

"Chief Harding, Chief Henderson, Deputy Service Director Eufrancia Lash, and Mayor Malik worked hard this past week to ensure there was adequate safety staffing for last weekend’s events. We were responsive to all inquiries and readily discussed these plans," a spokesperson for the mayor said in the statement.

Malik is working with vendors and organizers of the canceled events to “make them whole” financially, he said Friday. Officials are also working to reschedule the events, he said in a statement over the weekend. The North Hill 5K race has already been rescheduled, he said.

Tara Mosley Weems, a former city council member who hosts the Joy Park Juneteenth celebration in East Akron, believes council members wanted to make the mayor look bad.

“For them to then come back with a letter stating that they sent him a letter with caution and it was up to him to cancel, to me, they even raised even more concerns and suspect as to their reasoning as to why they did what they did," Weems said.

It was disrespectful for council members to target Juneteenth events specifically, Weems added.

"Gun violence is affecting people of all races all across this country, not just here in Akron," Weems said.

The city is planning a Juneteenth celebration at the John S. Knight Center on Wednesday. Organizers and vendors are invited to participate, Malik said in the statement.

However, not every vendor will be able to participate in an indoor event, such as food trucks, Weems said.

“Some of my vendors made homemade candy apples, you know, homemade cakes. That stuff isn’t going to last until Wednesday," Weems said. "The council didn’t think about any of them.”

Weems is hopeful she can reschedule her event for July.

Read the full Saturday news release from city council members below:

“We stand behind our expression of concern to Mayor Malik.  We want to be clear that we did not request that the mayor cancel all large gatherings on city-owned property. We wrote a letter expressing our concern about the hosting of the Juneteenth events after an earlier attempt to convey the magnitude of those concerns, particularly about the inequity of the police staff ratio for the different events were unfruitful. The decision to attribute the scope of the concerns to all events being held on city-owned property, and cancel those events too was Mayor Malik’s decision and his decision alone.

While there may have been no known credible threats against this year’s Juneteenth events, the fact remains that gun play and gun violence is an everyday reality in the African American community. Gun violence is impacting the African American community in Akron at an alarming rate. Those who do not share such lived experiences are challenged to fully understand and appreciate the fear and trauma experienced by those for which gun violence is an everyday occurrence. A young man was shot at a Juneteenth event last year and his life will forever impacted. His shooter has still not been apprehended. Shootings occur at football practices.  “Events can always take place, a lost life can never be replaced, said Ward 5 Councilman Johnnie Hannah. We appealed to the Mayor out of an abundance of caution and stand by our decision.” “The bottom line is that the request was to pause events due to the inequity of the police presence”, said Ward 4 Councilwoman Jan Davis.  “I learned that Mayor Malik had been in conversations with the event organizers, but not one time did he or his staff reach out to me as the Ward representative.”

The Mayor’s Together for Akron platform speaks to a level of collaboration that was not evident in the planning of the Juneteenth events. The Mayor had an opportunity to reach out to the Council Members to work collaboratively in planning the Juneteenth events scheduled to take place this weekend.  Neither the Mayor nor his Chief of Strategy Nanette Pitt chose to do so.  Additionally, the safety plan so often referenced was not shared with the relevant members of Council. We welcomed the opportunity to attend yesterday’s press conference but were informed by Chief of Strategy Nanette Pitt that the Council was not invited. When questioned about our absence on two occasions, the Mayor did not respond.

“Our constituents call us when problems arise and to express their fears, and the administration is reluctant to share information with Council that can assist in ensuring that the residents’ concerns are adequately addressed”, said Council President Margo Sommerville. “We have to do better; our city deserves better.”

Updated: June 17, 2024 at 3:00 PM EDT
This story has been updated to add additional comments from the mayor's office and from a former council member who hosts one of the Juneteenth events that was cancelled.
Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.