Metal detectors, police presence added to increase security at city hall

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Attendees at city council meetings, like resident Alice Richmond, now pass through a metal detector before entering council chambers. It’s difficult to admit or even consider vulnerability as a public figure, and for years West Linn city councilors took their seats at city hall without anything standing between them and the threat of violence.

It was easier to put off the issue and assume that a small city like West Linn was safe from the dangers more frequently seen in larger municipalities. But in recent years, as mass shootings and bomb threats began to pile up across the country while issues like the Lake Oswego-Tigard project brought public outcry to city hall, it became clear that something had to change.

Thus, since early November, city council meetings have been punctuated by the “beep” of a metal detector stationed outside the council chambers, with a a uniformed police officer stationed at the door.

Those additions — the metal detector and the police officer — arrived as part of the city’s effort to ensure safety during public meetings.

“Given what’s occurred in the nation in general as it relates to violence in public institutions, we realized that we needed to make all of our meetings as secure as possible,” City Council President Mike Jones said. “You can’t say, ‘This would never happen in West Linn.’ Unfortunately, it’s just not true anymore.”

The metal detector was originally purchased for $2,100 back in August for use at the municipal court, and the city council requested that its use be extended to council meetings as well. Ron Schwartz, the uniformed officer who attends meetings, is a retired member of both the Portland and West Linn police departments.

“We had ‘active shooter’ safety training a couple of months ago,” Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt said. “The city council became more aware of things going on in society and what’s being used for safety elsewhere. They decided they wanted to make sure that everyone who comes to meetings feels safe.”

The protocol changes were not without precedent. In October, a visitor was removed from city hall after making threatening remarks, and during the community comments portion of a December 2012 city council meeting, a speaker approached the councilors with a suspicious black duffel bag before leaving the chambers.

Back in 2006, the city also experienced a bomb scare that could have caused extensive damage at city hall.

As City Manager Chris Jordan remembered it, staff members discovered a broken window at the far end of city council chambers, and on the ground two stories below was what appeared to be a Molotov cocktail bomb.

The culprits likely meant to throw the bomb through the broken window but missed, Jordan said. The plan obviously failed, but it was another indication of city hall’s vulnerability.

For Jones, the new safety measures reach beyond protecting himself and other councilors.

“It goes to the bigger picture,” Jones said. “We have to make sure that everyone in that meeting is safe and secure and can attend without being concerned for their safety.”

And airport security, this is not. Meeting attendees are not required to take off their shoes or pour out their water bottles before entering — just throw their keys and phones into a basket and pass on through.

“It shouldn’t take much time,” Wyatt said. “And it shouldn’t change the experience for anyone who’s coming to meetings.”

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