In California, a County Board of Supervisors Wrestles with Security

Sept. 11, 2005
County supervisor calls for security review after numerous threats to board, employees

One might think a lowly local elected official has trouble enough finding someone who knows her name.

Go figure, but county supervisors routinely receive highly personal threatening letters and phone calls.

In office just eight months, Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho says such threats have left her so concerned about her safety and that of her staff and the public that she has called for a security study.

Piepho particularly wants to evaluate security for board meetings in Martinez, where supervisors perch in a row behind a curved dais like ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. (The dais contains a bulletproof plate but it only protects the supervisors who get behind it.)

"My staff has been threatened and I've been threatened," says Piepho. "Perhaps, these threats aren't serious but we have to take them very seriously. You never know when someone might decide to follow through. Our sacrifices as public servants are many but to sacrifice our lives would be a tragedy."

Security options include metal detectors to screen for weapons, surveillance cameras, sign-in sheets and the presence of deputies.

At the moment, security consists of lobby cameras and deputies if staffers or others expect a rowdy crowd or angry constituents.

Even three-term veteran Supervisor Gayle Uilkema welcomes the study.

"It's a felony to threaten an elected official but we receive more threats than people realize," she says.

She had a bullet-proof panel installed in the wall of her office that faces the lobby on the ground floor of the county administration building in Martinez.

"The jail is right across the street and when people (there) aren't happy, they are told to write a letter to their county supervisor," Uilkema said. "My name and address is on the wall of the jail, and (law enforcement officers) give them lined paper and pencil stubs."

Uilkema has received fat envelopes stuffed with handwritten rants from an unbalanced squatter in a Sierra homeless camp.

Another man left a message at her home calling for her assassination. Others mutter vague warnings, like "If I were you, I'd be very careful ..."

At one meeting, Uilkema recalls a disgruntled constituent who pulled a machete out of his overalls and waved it around. She kept him talking while she pressed a panic button connected to the sheriff's department.

Supervisors Federal Glover and Mark DeSaulnier take a more relaxed view of the threats.

Angry people often say things they don't really mean and wouldn't do, Glover says.

"You have to be careful, but a certain amount of this comes with the territory," DeSaulnier says. "I'm willing to look at security, but I don't want us to put up too many barriers between us and the public."

Is this debate a sign of changing times in a rapidly urbanizing county that recently topped a million people? Residents in neighboring Alameda and San Francisco counties, after all, run a security gauntlet when they attend supervisors' meetings.

If more security is inevitable, the question is this: How much public access are supervisors willing to trade for added security?

"Everyone wants to see easy access to public meetings, but everyone also wants a safe environment," says Undersheriff Obie Anderson. "Where to draw that line is where people will have a difference of opinion."

A HISTORICAL NOTE. The supervisors got their panic buzzer in 1979 after a county hospital mental ward escapee wandered into a board meeting.

Then board chairman Eric Hasseltine recalls that the man charged down the aisle toward the supervisors waving what appeared to be a tree branch and jumped over the railing in front of the dais.

A county department chief and a Richmond Independent reporter tackled the guy and held him until deputies arrived.

"Now, what could be more ignoble than to be saved from bodily harm by a reporter?" says Hasseltine, renowned for his disputes with the Fourth Estate.

He's kidding. Maybe.

(c) 2005 Associated Press