Macon, Ga., May Strengthen Security at City Hall

Macon officials are expediting plans to beef up security at City Hall, following an incident last week during which City Council members were threatened by a disgruntled resident.

Police Chief Rodney Monroe is drafting security plans for the Poplar Street building and has asked Mayor Jack Ellis and members of the council for input.

Monroe said he has been "considering a host of things." He did not disclose specifics but said metal detectors at building entrances are a possibility.

Tuesday, police were called to City Hall after a man disrupted a council meeting, threatening City Council members and presenting plastic bottles he said contained poison, eyewitnesses said.

"People around the city are being poisoned," the 22-year-old man declared after leaving council chambers.

Monroe said the incident "shows we're vulnerable in certain locations."

A day earlier, Monroe told the council's Public Safety Committee that he plans to use some of about $1.5 million in federal grants to better secure City Hall.

Councilman Charles Dudley, chairman of the committee, said the incident was a "rude awakening" and that he, Monroe and Chief Administrative Officer Bill Saunders have agreed that security at City Hall is a top priority.

Currently, City Hall has limited security. The police detective bureau is downstairs but is separated from the government side of the building. The only visible and permanent security measure is a police officer assigned to Ellis.

Dudley has asked Monroe to update the committee today at a 4 p.m. meeting.

"I think it's extremely important," Dudley said Friday. "We're not going to make it a jail house, but we're going to make it less intrusive and more protective."

Dudley said possible measures include installing card readers to control access to the building's offices, more video cameras, "panic buttons" to summon police, more windows to replace solid doors and walls, and metal detectors.

"Not only does it protect us, but it protects the general public, also," he said.

Maria Dobson, the city's customer service coordinator, said 90 percent of those who visit City Hall stop by her desk, which is in clear view of the building's lobby. Dobson said most of the time she feels safe at work.

"But when you hear things like the other day ... it concerns me," she said. "I do think that we need to be safer, especially up front."

Last year, city officials considered installing $85,000 in metal detectors and scanners, but opted for a police presence at City Council meetings.

Dudley said that move was temporary and that he's asked for a full-time police presence at the building until new security measures are in place.

When Ellis took office in late 1999, his administration proposed a security plan, which City Council reduced to installing a $27,000 metal detector and scanner at the entrance to the municipal courtroom.

At the time, someone threw a brick through a window of the mayor's office.

Ellis and police officials also said then that the mayor had received threatening phone calls in the past few years.

In July 2003, a man was arrested after he refused to leave the mayor's office after allegedly writing disparaging remarks on the office sign-in sheet. The event came days after New York City Councilman James Davis was shot to death by a political rival in a city building.

Some new security measures, such as video cameras, are now planned for the City Hall Annex and Terminal Station. Dudley said the technology grant, which also is being used to upgrade police crime-fighting technology, should cover all costs of the new measures.

The Bibb County Courthouse, where the County Commission meets, has metal detectors just inside the building's Second Street entrance. Dobson said security concerns are nothing new, citing the courthouse and searches at area schools.

Dudley said any rise in incidents probably would have more to do with state cuts in mental health funding than any residents upset with city officials.

Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, who serves on the county health department board, asked council members last week to be aware of the implications of a state plan to slash mental health funding.

Lucas said Tuesday that officials need to balance keeping City Hall accessible to the public with keeping safe those who use and work in the building.

"We're living in times that unfortunately call for greater attention to security," she said.