Gary angler takes fishing fight to the feds

2013-12-01T22:15:00Z 2013-12-09T01:54:03Z Gary angler takes fishing fight to the fedsLauri Harvey Keagle, (219) 852-4311

Silas Sconiers and Stacey Clayton just want to spend their retirement fishing.

But for the men, who live in Gary and Griffith just a short distance from Lake Michigan, a fishing trip means driving to East Chicago or Portage.

"Why should I have to leave the city and spend my money when I'm on a fixed income?" Sconiers said. "I've been told I can to go Portage or Hobart, but I feel insulted by that."

Gary has the largest stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline in the region, but has no public fishing spot on the lakeshore.

Sconiers filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of the Interior against Gary early this year.

He is alleging Gary lacks recreational services afforded to other cities with majority white populations; that funding is being denied based on race and that the Marquette Plan and the Lake Michigan Coastal Plan do not provide equal opportunities for fishing in minority areas that are provided in nonminority areas.

"I came from Chicago, an African-American community, and with all their problems, access isn't one of them but you come here to a similar city under African-American control and we have no access here at all to this wonderful resource," Clayton said.

Sconiers said the funds being spent on the city's lakefront are not truly for the use of its residents.

"They spent $28 million on the (Marquette Park) pavilion to make it look pretty because they can make money there, but no one who lives in this neighborhood can afford to have any events there," Sconiers said.

"We are a Golden Corral community. When our people get married or pass, we can't afford to go there and they know it."

Sconiers and Clayton could legally wade into the lake to fish, but neither have the physical ability to do so.

Clayton, 59, is confined to a wheelchair due to injuries suffered in a shooting during a robbery. Sconiers, 62, has five herniated discs and is legally disabled.

The Portage Lakefront Park and Pavilion has ADA accessible fishing, but that involves a 6-mile drive for the men.

Even if the men were able, they said dangerous rip currents would dissuade them from wading into the water to fish. They can't afford a boat. 

In September, Sconiers, local anglers and representatives from the Lake County Fish and Game Protective Association, Perch America, the Northwest Indiana Steelheaders and the Izaak Walton League of America met at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore with officials from the equal opportunity office of the U.S. Department of the Interior to discuss Sconiers' formal complaint.

Rose Pruitt, equal opportunities programs manager for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., declined comment on the investigation.

"It is not our practice to disclose the specifics of a complaint during the investigative stage," Pruitt said.

Gary's Law Department responded to the allegations in a letter to Pruitt in October, saying the city is willing to work with state and federal officials, but does not believe fishing access is currently economically feasible.

The letter explains Gary's lakefront is divided into the recreational section near Marquette Park and the industrial section near Buffington Harbor.

The private property owners in Buffington Harbor, "have no affirmative duty or obligation to make their boat docks or property available to the public for deep sea fishing and the city has no control or authority to require these entities to provide access for recreational activities," Niquelle Allen, corporation council, wrote in the letter. 

"The city makes every attempt to make recreational facilities and resources available to its citizens," Allen wrote. "However, deep sea fishing is not a fundamental right that is guaranteed nor is there any city ordinance the requires primary access to the lakefront for deep sea fishing to the public." 

Sconiers said the response is "unacceptable."

"They told me one administration after the next, 'We'll get you next time.'

Pruitt said the complaint is in the investigative stage. A letter of findings will be issued when the investigation is complete.

"It's something I'm not going to give up on," Sconiers said.

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