They say creating a 'barrier' between public and politicians not the intent
Some city councillors say new security measures being implemented at Tom Davies Square may need to be revisited to ensure they're not creating a barrier between local government and the public.
Northern Life called all members of city council seeking comment on the new rules, the most restrictive of any city hall in Northern Ontario, and more restrictive in terms of media access than larger cities such as Ottawa, Toronto and Windsor.
Speaking from the Prospectors and Developers Association Conference in Toronto, Mayor Marianne Matichuk said the word “barriers” should never have been used.
“That's not what was conveyed to council,” she said. “But the city has been working for years on security measures at Tom Davies Square.”
City hall was designed to be open and accessible, but that has led to concerns among staff about their own safety, Matichuk said. A staff survey a few years ago revealed security was a major concern, she said. It's those concerns that are driving the current process, not politicians. What council is trying to do is find a balance between security and public access.
“The taxpayers (must) have full and free access to council,” Matichuk said, who said there was room for change to the measures. “But it's very hard to (find) that balance ... But a barrier? That was never the intent.”
Ward 11 Coun. Terry Kett said if it was up to him, peaceful protests like the recent SCAP demonstrations demanding more homeless shelters would be allowed.
“I believe that if people want to yell and scream at you in the council chambers, then go do it,” Kett said. “If they want to chant and bring in banners, go do it. To me, I don't feel endangered by someone yelling at me. I don't.”
Council should be the most accessible of any level of government, he said, adding some of the new rules make him “uncomfortable” and need to be reviewed.
“The bottom line is we really haven't made the final decision on this.”
Ward 1 Coun. Joe Cimino said their briefings on the new measures focused more on the entire building. Now that council chambers hosts provincial offences court during the day, increased security was required, which led to a review of the entire building.
In their briefing on the new measures, councillors were given examples of violent attacks on local government south of the border, where permissive gun laws put public officials at much higher risk.
“So the examples we were given weren't from Canada, they were from the U.S., of things that could happen,” Cimino said. “But several councillors made it clear that this is a public office, that council is the level of government that's closest to the people.
“So I'm surprised the word 'barrier' was used. It's more about security within the building.”
He's also puzzled by measures to restrict media access, Cimino said, which began last year when the media were removed from their table on council floor and moved into the public gallery. The reason given at the time was the table was needed for city employees, but it often sits empty.
“That staff table is basically unused,” Cimino said. “To me it makes more sense to have the media where you were.”
Ward 3 Coun. Claude Berthiaume said they were told staff found an intruder sleeping on the couch on the fourth floor last year, which shook people up.
“Tom Davies Square is very open, especially on the fourth floor,” Berthiaume said. “For security of staff, I can see improving security at Tom Davies Square, as long as they respect the right of people to come to council meetings.”
But he said he wasn't sure why new restrictions were placed on the media, or how they related to the security of staff.
“I'm not sure how that all came about,” he said. “As politicians, we should always be accessible to everyone, that's for sure … (But) sometimes, it makes you wonder if we're going to the other end too much. I hope we don't go overboard.”
Ward 7 Coun. Dave Kilgour said improving security at city hall as a whole is one thing, but committee and council meetings are another matter. And trying to control public and media access is the “least” important part of the plan.
“I don't think that part's going to stick, because there was a lot of kickback from council, too,” Kilgour said. “Ninety per cent of this is being done for safety of the staff across the building.”
Ward 8 Coun. Fabio Belli said he doesn't see any need for change, but agreed the plan was presented to them as a necessary part of keeping staff safe.
“There's certainly no direction from me to put these measures in place,” Belli said. “It's all from direction from staff.”
– At a briefing Feb. 27, reporters were told the intent of the new restrictions was to create a “barrier” between the public and staff and politicians. That Northerners often carry knives was referenced as one of the reasons for the new rules.
– New rules include limits what you can bring into council chambers – for example, bags will be searched and security will be at the door.
- Committee rooms and council chambers will be locked until 15 minutes before meetings begin, where previously they were open for most of the day.
- Reporters covering city council will have to give personal information to city staff when they apply for ID cards. They will have to sign in before meetings, and must wear the cards to go from the public gallery where the media sits past the gates blocking access to the council floor.
– Not only will access to the council floor be severely restricted, violating the rules could lead to ID cards being revoked “without warning,” leading to a review of whether the media in question should lose their privileges indefinitely.