COVINGTON -- A street preacher is aggravating residents and business owners in downtown Covington.
Fleeta Baggett, who lives in The Lofts on the Square, complained to the Covington City Council at its March 19 meeting that the preacher, identified as Mathew Edwards, has been loudly screaming and is confrontational with anyone who approaches him. Baggett said he typically stands on the corner of College and Church streets between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and usually has a small group of people with him, including children who drag crosses with phrases on them such as, "Are you ready to meet your maker?"
"You can't talk to him in a normal tone. If you try to talk to him about what he's doing, he starts screaming at you," Baggett said. "I cannot hear anything in my loft with three TVs on with that man screaming. It's almost like an assault, it's so loud."
Baggett said she has witnessed visitors to the Square and customers of businesses downtown leave due to the man's aggressiveness. She said sales at Scoops, the ice cream shop on the corner, are down, but when asked to comment, Scoops owner Sue Kirk said she can't verify that the preacher has impacted sales or created a problem for the store. Kirk said she spends Saturdays at her other business and has not personally witnessed his behavior.
But Susan Thompson, owner of Merle Norman, said she can hear the preacher's screaming inside her shop.
"He's very loud. I'm not sure how many people turn away from that. My approach is don't bother me and I won't bother you, but if he's turning people away from downtown, he should have to rent a space like me to peddle whatever it is, whether it's his word or his product. He is loud; he is not talking to his congregation, he's screaming for everyone to hear," she said.
Thompson said she has not seen Edwards being aggressive and she could not say whether she has lost business due to his presence.
An employee at Amici Italian Cafe said while the preacher hasn't impacted business, "It definitely kind of takes away from the downtown because it is kind of abrasive."
However Jessa Bank, assistant manager at the coffee shop Square Perk, said her store has not had any problems.
"It's been fine. Nobody's irritated," she said.
Baggett said Edwards also leaves cards on citizens' cars and "if you hold it down, it tells you if you're a good person."
Baggett said she has been advised to call police if he steps into the street, which he sometimes does in response to hecklers, but she said by the time police could get there, he would have stepped back onto the sidewalk.
"I don't want to be that woman on the corner who calls police all the time because I want them to come when I need them," she said.
Police Chief Stacey Cotton said Edwards has been obtaining a public assembly permit for about six months. He first began preaching on the courthouse steps but then moved to the intersection of College and Church streets. Cotton said he would talk with Edwards about his bothersome behavior when he applies for the next permit.
A gathering of eight or more people triggers the requirement for a permit.
City Attorney Ed Crudup said that while the preacher is exercising his right to free speech, "whether his free speech is so extreme that it amounts to terroristic acts or threats or a public nuisance could ultimately be determined by a court, based on the facts."
A citizen could file a nuisance complaint to be heard in Municipal Court, Crudup added.
Officials indicated they would like the matter addressed quickly, given that it's the season for high school proms, and students often go the Square to take pictures prior to the prom.
Baggett also addressed the counsel regarding a proposal to put LED lights in lampposts and twinkling lights in trees around the Square. During her nine years living in The Lofts, Baggett said she has witnessed drug use, nudity, drunks, people setting off burglar alarms and loiterers on the Square after hours.
Baggett asked that the shades blocking the glare from the street lights be retained when the LED lights are installed and that the tree lights be put on a timer.
"I don't think we need to encourage people to stay on the Square all night long," Baggett said.
Mayor Ronnie Johnston said the lights were requested by the Downtown Business Council, but added that a decision about whether to install them has not been made.
Baggett is the sister of Councilman Chris Smith.