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Baltimore City Hall balcony where sit-in protest occurred closed ahead of council meeting

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has closed the balcony above council chambers in City Hall, just days after protesters disrupted a City Council hearing on the appointment of Kevin Davis as the city's police commissioner and staged an overnight sit-in from the space.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has ordered the closure of the balcony above council chambers in City Hall — just days after protesters disrupted a council hearing on the appointment of Kevin Davis as the city's police commissioner and staged an overnight protest from the space.

The decision, which Young announced at a scheduled council luncheon on Monday afternoon, came ahead of another council meeting on Monday evening where members are expected to confirm Davis as commissioner, removing the "interim" label from his title. The balcony is routinely used by members of the public who cannot fit in the limited amount of seating on the chamber floor, which often is filled by council staff and other official visitors.

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"That balcony is in poor shape," Young said, of why he chose to close the balcony. "It's unsafe up there. We don't want nobody getting hurt up there."

Protesters immediately responded on social media and at an afternoon news conference ahead of the council meeting, questioning the motivation behind the decision.

Adam Jackson of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, one of the groups involved in last week's protest, called the balcony closure "a real sneaky way of trying to curtail the voices of young people."

The sit-in protest occurred after about 30 protesters filled the balcony during the committee hearing on Davis' appointment Wednesday night, disrupted the hearing by shouting out demands they have for the police department, and then refused to leave the balcony. The protest drew a large police presence to City Hall in the early morning hours of Thursday. In the end, 16 protesters who refused to leave after receiving warnings from police were arrested and charged with trespassing.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said officials at City Hall have long known of issues in the balcony, including damaged and dislodged seats with potentially dangerous metal pieces exposed. The protest on the balcony last week, where protesters did not intentionally cause damage but were seen standing on the seats, possibly damaged the seating further and heightened concerns that the seating was a safety hazard and should be removed from public use pending repairs and an assessment of the area's compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, he said.

"We didn't want to have a situation where you had loose things, sharp pieces of metal sticking out," he said. "You have several chairs where metal pieces are exposed and several chairs that are off of their frames, so more metal exposed. This is not a matter of aesthetics."

Young said he planned to set up "overflow" seating in another room where the public can watch the vote on Kevin Davis' appointment on TV. Without the balcony area, there are about 65 seats open to the public within the council chambers. Young also asked council members to limit the number of staff they have in the chambers and asked to reschedule a Greater Baltimore Committee leadership group visit to the chambers, so that there would be more public seating available, Lester Davis said.

Shortly after 5 p.m., seating in the chamber filled up, and people were directed to the room set up for overflow seating.

Lester Davis said there was nothing "conspiratorial" about Young's decision to close the balcony — even if the timing following the protest raised questions.

"We understand the optics," he Davis said. "But from the president's perspective, he wasn't really concerned with optics or how this came across. For him, he was looking at this purely from a safety perspective."

Davis cited a recent incident in which a woman was injured after the chair she was using on the chamber floor broke underneath of her, and provided an email chain between City Hall officials and members of Young's staff about needed repairs on the balcony.

"General Services is trying to schedule a convenient time to do work in the Council balcony and asked if I could get a schedule of meetings, hearings, and any other activities that are planned" for the next few months, Jeanne Davis, curator of the historic City Hall building, wrote to Young's scheduler, Zoe Michal, on Sept. 23.

The same day, Hosea Chew, Young's director of administration, wrote that the council has received claims under the ADA about accessibility in the balcony, and that bringing the balcony into ADA compliance "must be done as soon as possible to prevent future lawsuits."

Jeanne Davis wrote that "there will be an area at the top for visitors in wheelchairs, the height of the steps will be adjusted, and there will be a handrail installed down the center of the steps." She said she could ask about fixing chairs on chamber floor as well — which Chew had asked about — but that she was unsure whether funding would permit the additional work.

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Lester Davis, Young's spokesman, said officials had been trying to "hold out" on closing the balcony until a break in the council's schedule toward the end of the year, but Young decided to move forward with closing the balcony — knowing that there could be another large group of protesters there on Monday night.

The balcony will remain closed until the repairs are completed, which could be early next year, he said.

Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle tweeted its feelings about the balcony closure. "When you have to say the words 'there is nothing conspiratorial' about a decision, it kind of shows the problem in itself," the group wrote.

Protesters had already planned to gather at City Hall at 4 p.m. ahead of the council meeting, which starts at 5 p.m., before Young's decision was announced. After, they issued additional calls for people to join them at City Hall.

Makayla Gilliam-Price, a co-founder of the youth City Bloc organization, said Kevin Davis met with a group of protest leaders Sunday and had agreed to address their demands.

She said she would be congratulating Davis Monday if he'd publicly acknowledged the agreement she says was reached Sunday. But she said there was an "absolute disconnect" between Davis' stance at the meeting and a statement he released Monday.

Davis' statement acknowledged the meeting, but did not address whether he had agreed to protesters' demands.

"Over the weekend, I met with grassroot protest organizers to discuss matters of mutual concern regarding police-protestor interactions. We ultimately want the same thing: a safe and peaceful environment where citizens can exercise their Constitutional rights. We've taken steps to ensure a better flow of communication, and I look forward to a constructive and productive relationship moving forward," his statement read.

Gilliam-Price said Davis' statement left her feeling "personally disrespected."

The council is expected to confirm Davis' appointment. His proposed $200,000-a-year contract would then go before the Board of Estimates, which is expected to approve it.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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