City considers employing new safety measures at council meetings

Friday, February 8, 2008 | 7:07 p.m. CST; updated 10:57 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 8, 2008

COLUMBIA — In the aftermath of Thursday’s shooting at the Kirkwood City Council meeting, Columbia officials are looking into steps they could take to increase security at public meetings. Their main concern, however, is finding an appropriate balance between security and maintaining public accessibility.

“It is an absolute tragedy,” City Manager Bill Watkins said. “Unfortunately, it could happen in any council chamber in any community. There’s not much security you could put in that room that would prevent what happened in Kirkwood.”

The Kirkwood tragedy probably will prompt some new discussions here about safety precautions that could be built into the council chambers in the new City Hall. Watkins said the council discussed possible safety measures for the new chambers months ago and will likely rediscuss them.

“My recommendation was that we didn’t want to go so far as having things like metal detectors,” Watkins said. “I still believe that is the appropriate action.”

Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine has already spoken with the architect of the new City Hall about what extra safety measures could be included, Watkins said. Besides metal detectors, devices such as glass in front of the council dais were considered.

St. Romaine said he also would bring recommendations to the council about increasing security in the existing chambers because the City Hall renovation will not be complete for a few years.

He said the city would probably look at having more armed officers present at council meetings. A staff officer from the Columbia Police Department currently attends all meetings.

Still, it’s hard to fully secure a public meeting.

“Logistically, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to secure a public meeting like that,” Police Chief Randy Boehm said.

Both Mayor Darwin Hindman and Watkins said it’s key to balance the interests of safety and public accessibility.

“We like to have a lot of participation by citizens,” Hindman said. “We want to make that as convenient and accessible as possible.”

Added security might make citizens uncomfortable at council meetings, Hindman said. “You in effect are throwing up barriers.”

In the renovated City Hall, the council chambers would be on the first floor so people can walk right into meetings and participate.

St. Romaine noted that the layout has added security benefits. With many city meetings going until the early hours of the morning, the current location of the chambers on the fourth floor means the entire Daniel Boone City Building must be open late.

If chambers were located on the first floor, St. Romaine said, the rest of the building could be locked down.

Gary Markenson, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, said the Kirkwood shooting could spark discussions around the state about what, if any, security measures should be put in place for public meetings.

Tens of thousands of open public meetings occur around the state every month, Markenson said. There are approximately 1,100 cities, 114 counties and hundreds of other public bodies holding routine sessions.

With such a volume of meetings, Markenson said he wondered whether an isolated episode such as the Kirkwood shooting calls for any extreme response.

“This was really an aberration, and I’m not sure there is a need for us to install a great deal of safety systems and metal detectors,” Markenson said.

Markenson said he knew most of the city officials involved in the shooting because of their work with the Municipal League. Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda was the president of the league in 2002 and the former president of the St. Louis County Municipal League.

“It is an absolutely terrible tragedy,” Markenson said. “It shows the potential risks of public involvement.”

In recognition of the Kirkwood tragedy, Watkins said Columbia would be flying its flags at half-mast. Boehm said he will make every effort to have an officer present at any memorial the Kirkwood Police Department might have.

City officials have offered their condolences to the victims of the shooting and their families.

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