Portland Increases City Hall security

SUMMARY: Government | Now open and lightly guarded, some buildings will tighten up

Mayor Tom Potter promised to make city government more open, but he's also making municipal buildings harder for the general public to enter.

Per Potter's instructions, the City Council will sign off this week on a new security contract --and, in turn, a tighter network of security --for City Hall and other municipal buildings. Among the new precautions coming over the next few months: Fewer entrances and more armed guards.

"I felt security at City Hall and the Portland Building was totally inadequate," said Potter, a former Portland police chief. "The fact that nothing has happened here, I think we've been damn lucky. I don't want to wait for something to happen to make changes."

At first blush, Portland City Hall seems a remarkably open and inviting place, at least as far as government facilities go. Visitors don't have to sign in, empty their bags or walk through a metal detector. The only armed guard in the building works in the mayor's third-floor suite.

The people in charge of city safety don't like to talk about other precautions, but they're there. Not-quite-hidden cameras keep watch over much of City Hall, for example, and there are strategically placed panic buttons to summon armed help if needed. In more than one elected official's office, secretaries keep pictures of a few of the more regular and potentially dangerous visitors. The mayor's guard keeps in constant contact with the Portland Police Bureau.

But getting in and out of City Hall and the neighboring Portland Building, home to almost 1,500 city employees, is relatively easy. There's good reason: City leaders want to encourage the public to participate in government. Anyone, for example, can sign up to speak before the weekly Wednesday morning City Council meeting. This year, city commissioners began throwing monthly First Thursday parties that are open to constituents.

There are usually art exhibits in the Portland Building and in City Hall: A giant, light-catching mobile dedicated to former Mayor Vera Katz is permanently installed in the north atrium, along with a big red mattress for viewing it while lying down. At the moment, a 35-by-22-foot blanket made of recycled plastic hangs on the south side of the building. A computer screen offers guests a photographic tour of old Portland.

Potter has recently started wearing his city ID badge --featuring his name, picture and job description --in the hopes that other city employees will get the hint to do the same. But he says he wants to make sure that the public still feels welcome.

"This is not going to keep people from coming inside," he said. "That is not the goal."

Instead, the mayor and other city leaders hope to strike a balance between welcoming taxpayers and keeping city workers safe. They'll spend $200,000 this year adding new optic scanners and other technology and $1.1 million annually on a new, consolidated city security force, including more armed guards.

That's an increase of about $100,000 annually on what the city was spending. Under the old, pre-Potter security plan, Portland police officers protected the mayor. Potter wants them fighting crime, not guarding him.

Seven companies bid for the new city contract, which includes guarding City Hall, the Portland Building, a number of city parks and ball fields, Albina Yards, the 1900 Building and Union Station. The winner, First Response Inc., has pledged to work with the current provider, DePaul Industries, to help ensure that the people currently working security in city government still have jobs. DePaul specializes in finding steady, decent-paying work for people with disabilities.

For the public, the biggest change will be in points of access: Soon, only city employees will be able to get into City Hall on the Southwest Fifth Avenue side. Everyone else will have to go through the Fourth Avenue side. At least one armed guard will work there during business hours. There won't be metal detectors, and visitors probably won't be required to sign in. But security crews will be paying close attention to who enters.

"It's not going to be like the courthouse," where rush hour crowds sometimes wind around the corner of the building, said Bob Kieta of the city's Bureau of General Services. "But you are going to notice a difference."

That seems to please the people who work in city buildings, if not those trying to visit them. Commissioner Randy Leonard, who has declined to post his schedule on the Internet for security reasons, says he would support putting metal detectors at the front door.

"Security has been lax," he said. "If we don't make changes, somebody is going to get hurt."