A decade ago, then-Portland Mayor Tom Potter installed security turnstiles at the public entrance to Portland City Hall and added armed guards in city offices.
One of the first things Charlie Hales did when he became Portland mayor was to remove the turnstiles and promise a more welcome environment.
“There were these little pylons with electrically operated flippers,” he said of the gates. “And there was somebody sitting in a chair would ask you, who are you going to see? Depending on your answer, they would open the flippers or not.”
With the flippers gone, people held their weddings in City Hall. The Decemberists dropped an album there. Homeless people could wander in, have a cup of coffee and get warm.
“The people that own the building are the people of a city,” Hales said. “They shouldn’t feel like they have to pass a test to come inside.”
But the openness of the building — and what some say is a lax approach to security — has also created real challenges for the hundreds of government employees who work at City Hall.
“Personally, I’m a 6-foot-3, 200-pound plus white guy. And I feel unsafe in this building,” said Jamie Dunphy, a policy advisor for Commissioner Nick Fish.
Dunphy recently went to a judge to get a temporary stalking order against a man who speaks often at City Council meetings, David Kif Davis. Davis usually carries a small camera, and uses the public comment portion of council meetings to talk about police use of force. Last month, he was escorted out of one City Council hearing by a security guard, yelling as he went: “F—- you, you piece of s—-! … I’ll find out where you live, and show up outside of your house too!”
Dunphy said he asked for the restraining order after Davis challenged him to a fist fight in the City Hall lobby, in front of several guards. Dunphy said he took the incident seriously, not because he’s a wimp, but because he’s had experience with threats and violence. In one of his previous jobs, he worked with gang-involved kids at the David Douglas School District.
“I’ve had three of my students die,” he said. “I had another 12 get shot and live. I had one student kill another one of my students.”
Dunphy also worked for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley when his colleague, Rep. Gabby Giffords, was shot in the head and one of her staffers was killed during a constituent meeting.
“We want to pretend that Portland is a small quaint town where scary things don’t happen,” Dunphy said. “But we’re a part of this world that does have scary things at every level.”
Dunphy feels torn. He believes people have a right to bring their grievances to City Hall, but he’s also watched attitudes toward people who work for the government harden.
Dunphy noted that City Hall is built for public access — doors to the commissioners’ offices, for example, are made of single-pane glass — and worries he and his fellow staff aren’t well-prepared for emergencies.
“We don’t even know what to do if there’s a fire drill,” he said.
Portland isn’t the only city grappling with the question of how to balance public accessibility with employee safety. Eugene is building a new City Hall. Its old building, built in 1964, was decidedly unfriendly. The City Council chamber was surrounded by an actual moat filled with water.
Eugene leaders want the new building to be more welcoming, but they’re also trying to make it safe. They nixed the idea of putting in metal detectors as it was too expensive and cumbersome, said Mike Penwell, an architect and planner on the project. Instead of limiting access to City Hall, they added exits to make it easy for people to leave quickly.
“We’ve actually adjusted the design as we’ve gone along, to provide more ways out of the public meeting rooms and public areas,” he said.
Meanwhile, new Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler says he’s asked his chief administrative officer to do a full security review of Portland’s City Hall.
“I don’t think any of us want City Hall to be less accessible, but all of us just understand that times have changed,” Wheeler said. “Maybe it is time for us to look at beefing up security.”
Wheeler also said he will not tolerate violent language or threats in council chambers.
“That kind of behavior is absolutely not acceptable,” he said. “It’s taking time away from the business of City Hall, it’s robbing people who show up and want to testify of their opportunity to testify and have their voices heard, and it’s creating an environment that isn’t one where people feel safe or welcome coming down to talk to their own city council.”
Dunphy, the staffer in Commissioner Fish’s office who’s spoken out about safety, said he doesn’t think the city needs to bring back the turnstiles or install metal detectors. But he would like to know there’s a plan in place in case something goes wrong.