Are city halls in major urban centres safe enough?

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

1 comment

Is your city hall doing enough to protect your elected officials? How much is too much?

There are reports emerging out of Winnipeg this week that they had a bit of a security scare at City Hall. A man was arrested after he entered the chamber and began shouting obsenities. It was then discovered he was carrying a can of either kerosene or gasoline. Fumes from the flammable substance permeated City Hall.

So how much security is too much? With the exception of a few notable exceptions such as Quebec City, few of Canada’s major city halls are high security zones. For the most part, the public is allowed to walk freely throughout the buildings during regular business hours and evening public hearings. There are no costly X-ray screens or bag checks to ensure the “bad apples” stay out of chamber.

It’s pretty clear the manner in which city halls in major urban centres manage security threats is in stark contrast to senior levels of government. As part of my job, I regularly travel across Canada and visit the House of Commons and various provincial legislatures. I can assure you that over the last decade they have transformed into virtual fortresses (Greenpeace protests notwithstanding) that subject their visitors to a labyrinth of security measures. When I compare this to when I first visited the House of Commons in mid-80s, it may feel more secure, but it’s a lot less friendly.

The recent incident in Winnipeg has helped to trigger a debate as to whether big city governments should be doing more than simply hiring security guards to protect our elected officials. In many ways our world is becoming much safer, but the threat of harm to elected officials is a real one. Unfortunately, those whose aim it is to disrupt our way of life and democracy will often target their attacks at elected officials.

In a city like Vancouver, installing X-ray scanners and doing bag checks prior to entering the chamber would go over like a lead balloon. The civil rights activists would claim that this is yet another erosion of our democratic rights and freedoms. But is it really? Would heightened security reduce people’s right to protest, or merely add a new level of security?

Having worked at Vancouver City Hall for about three years, I can recall a number of incidents where protestors paid a visit to the chamber and frightened many of the elected officials. Whether it was their shouting, fist waving, threats or profanity, this type of hooliganism often disrupted the legitimate democratic proceedings of Vancouver City Hall. Thankfully, none of those protestors caused any physical harm toward the elected officials.

However, what if some radical group really did want to send a political message and harm the Mayor and Council? Today there are few measures in place to stop someone from doing so. When the council is in session, almost anyone can walk up to City Hall and walk right into the chamber. Within minutes they can be spitting distance from the whole city government. Just imagine the whole cabinet sitting in a room open to the public without any security measures – simply wouldn’t happen.

Turning our city halls into security fortresses would be a real shame. The appeal of our civic governments is that they are the most open, transparent level of government which is closest to the people. The addition of airport-like security measures would certainly put an end to this era. However, all it will take is once major incident for people to look back and question whether we did enough.

As each year passes, we appear comfortable rolling the dice in the hope that no one will purposely hurt our municipal officials. For the sake of our civic democracy, luck better be on our side.

What do you think about introducing new security measures at your local city hall? Check out our new online poll on the subject.

- Post by Daniel

1 Comment

Tom and I left New York in part because the nature of that city changed so much after the attacks on 9/11. And I am adamantly opposed to the new massive new London-style closed-circuit security camera surveillance system put in place by the new Vision council.

However, I do feel our Mayor and councillors need some additional protection and security measures put into place at City Hall. Anyone that appears to speak to council is there because they are passionate about an issue and occasionally angry, justified or not, about the rightness of their cause.

My own recent appearance to speak before council made me more aware of how vulnerable our elected representatives are to the passions of the day. Let's not forget that an insane Vision supporter dumped a huge bucket of cold liquid over our last Mayor's head. This was done to a man in a wheelchair unable to defend himself, as despicable an act as can be committed.

But it also illustrates the mindset of some lunatics on the extremes who feel justified in committing unconscionable acts without a tinge of conscience, humanity or regret. Those threatening violence over the torch ceremony - endangering children, heroic Canadian athletes and other innocent bystanders in the process - come to mind. There is no excuse, and yet those who convince themselves of the moral right of their position often commit acts unfathomable to the good conscience of the rest of society.

I urge council to put in place some basic measures to better enhance security and protect our elected officials from the politically deranged, and in fact to help protect the politically deranged from their own passions.

With common sense measures - an extension of the partial bannister between audience and council for instance - I'm certain this can be done without in any way impeding the people's ability to petition their own government while helping to ensure everyone's safety.

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