Spokane City Hall will be watched by at least one security guard 11 hours a day starting next month.
The decision, officials say, is the result of a few incidents in recent years when employees felt threatened by visitors, including one involving a man who slammed a hatchet down on its side during an outburst in a meeting with the city’s police ombudsman.
“It’s an unfortunate sign of our times that we have to provide this security, but its purpose is to protect the citizens and our employees,” Mayor Mary Verner said.
The last contract to provide security for City Hall expired at the end of 2004 because of budget cuts, said Dorothy Webster, administrative services director. Other security measures have increased since late 2008, after shots were fired into the building when it was closed. Verner ordered those measures, including the locking of some entrances to visitors and a requirement for visitors to sign in to access areas beyond the first floor. Earlier this year, stairwells were made off-limits to visitors unless they use them to exit the building. Visitors also have been barred from using the skywalk between the River Park Square garage and City Hall.
City officials say the work they do – utility billing, for instance – invariably causes conflict with some residents and that having a security guard on site is likely less restrictive than what many other governments and businesses, including The Spokesman-Review, have to protect their employees.
City Council President Joe Shogan said adding security officers won’t interfere with peoples’ ability to access their local government.
“Hopefully, they won’t notice any difference,” Shogan said.
But Councilman Bob Apple said adding security is an unneeded cost and barrier.
“It’s baloney that people have to check in at City Hall to get into the building. Now, apparently, you’ll be escorted around,” Apple said. “It keeps people from even wanting to come down here.”
Administrators stress that guards won’t be escorting anyone, unless someone is causing problems and escorted out. They say the procedure for entering the building won’t change. What will change is that someone trained in security will be on site.
Shogan said without security, City Hall was on “borrowed time.”
“My job is to prepare for the unthinkable so we don’t have to deal with that after it’s occurred,” Shogan said.
The council this week voted 4-1 in favor of a $76,000 contract with Starplex, an Oregon-based security firm. Apple cast the lone vote against the contract. Council members Nancy McLaughlin and Jon Snyder were absent.
McLaughlin, who was sick on Monday, said she had mixed feelings about the contract but was willing to vote in favor if it appeared city employees felt it was necessary.
“I’m just not a very fearful person,” she said. “If somebody really wants to get into the building, they’re going to get in. I just don’t know that two security guards are going to stop an incident.”
She added that she supports the sign-in process, but believes visitors should have to show ID so that they don’t provide false names.
Starplex was not the lowest bidder for the contract. Webster said nine companies applied for the work and five were interviewed by a committee.
“We had to pick the best-qualified party, and the low bidder wasn’t the most qualified,” said Shogan, who was on the selection committee.
Shogan mentioned the hatchet incident during City Council debate. It occurred in 2009 when the man met one-on-one in a City Hall conference room with Police Ombudsman Tim Burns. Burns said the man had the hatchet within some papers on the floor. When the man grew angry, he picked it up and slammed it on the table on its side. Burns said he felt the man was trying to intimidate him, though he didn’t necessarily feel threatened. Burns said he told the man that the meeting was over and the man left angry, turning garbage and chairs over as he left the building, Burns said.
“He was clearly out of control,” Burns said. “It reinforced in our minds that there was some risk and danger.”