After more than a month in the musty old Portland Building, Portland City Council hearings made a triumphant return to their home in City Hall this morning. And, boy, things have changed.
The official reason for holding meetings across the road since early March was that the city needed to install new audio/video equipment in council chambers (it did! and now no one knows how the work the microphones). But it turns out officials also took the opportunity to tweak City Hall protocols as well.
After protests, fits of cursing, symbolic funerals, and all manner of other demonstrations at council meetings this year, security at City Hall is the tightest it's been under at least the last three mayors.
The first thing members of the public noticed when approaching the building this morning: Two double doors at the entrance had been marked off with cones, and contract security guards were ushering people through one of two doors—left for city employees, right for the public.
Waiting beyond those first two guards? Two more—these ones there to check your bag for weapons and/or contraband.
The security guards this morning were uniformly courteous, and informed me that this was the new norm at Portland City Hall. The bag check procedures will remain in effect from Monday through Friday (they began last week, according to a city spokesperson).
And that's not all.
Council chambers today was outfitted with a new velvet rope meant to dissuade members of the public from approaching council members (you know, like to give them a Pepsi). And someone had built new barriers near each side of the council dais. Pictures below:
Lastly, Mayor Ted Wheeler has apparently made the decision not to let people use the balcony in council chambers—typically opened up when the size of the crowd fills the main level. Instead, the city has an overflow space across the hall streaming the meeting on a television screen.
"For the time being, the balcony will remained closed," Wheeler spokesperson Michael Cox tells us.
None of this is exactly unexpected. In his attempts to grapple with mounting outbursts at council Wheeler has pushed new, potentially unconstitutional exclusion rules and has even flirted with the notion of admission tickets to council meetings. And the mayor's not wrong when he points out, with increasing frequency, that the interruptions drag out council meetings into all-day affairs.
As we've reported, the demonstrations have become worrisome to some City Hall staffers. According to the Oregonian, one of Commissioner Nick Fish's employees even retired because of them.
Still, it's worth noting that this is the most stringent security that City Hall has seen in years.
Bryant Enge, the director of the Bureau of Internal Business Services, said today he couldn't remember a time when guards checked people's bags at the entrance, though he stressed he'd have to check to make sure it was never a practice. Certainly there wasn't such a policy under former mayors Sam Adams and Charlie Hales.
(Hales, caught up in the fervor of civic brotherhood early in his term, even removed turnstiles that used to pause members of the public at the building's main entrance.)
And security might grow tighter still. The city is in the midst of picking a private consultant to "develop a detailed Security Master Plan for the city." It received 11 bids for the contract, and is currently picking between a West Linn company and a firm from Maryland.
But let's also consider the real question: Has the new security helped calm things down?
Not today it didn't.
Following a familiar pattern, shouting erupted from the audience during an item related to the Rose Festival, leading to Wheeler ejecting one person and clearing the chambers when a woman began shouting profanity at him. Eventually, officers arrested the woman, Danialle Johnson, in the hallway outside of chambers. She was booked on a charge of criminal trespass. Whether that charge will stick is unclear.