Foss: City Halls should be open and welcoming

Schenectady City Hall on Jay Street.
Schenectady City Hall on Jay Street.

If you’ve never been inside Schenectady City Hall, I encourage you to stop by. 

It’s the sort of building they just don’t make anymore — a stately brick structure topped by a clock tower and cupola with a golden dome. The roof that hangs over the front door is supported by thick marble columns that recall ancient Rome. 

The interior is just as impressive. 

My favorite feature? 

The intricately painted rotunda ceiling, and the skylight at its center. 

Of course, most of the people going in and out of City Hall on any given day aren’t tourists. They’re city workers and members of the public with business to attend to, much of it stressful. A visit to City Hall is often prompted by a problem in need of solving. 

Given the myriad reasons why people visit City Hall, and the recent shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that killed 12 and injured four, I can understand why City Councilman John Polimeni is calling for a review of security protocol at City Hall.

More cities are undertaking such reviews, assessing what they can do to secure public workplaces that often, as an article in the online magazine CityLab put it, “serve as arenas for confrontation and grievance-sharing.”

We should do what we can to protect public employees from unnecessary risk, but I’d caution against overreacting. 

City Hall is supposed to be a welcoming place, and implementing new security measures could make it a less democratic and open place. That doesn’t mean that nothing can or should be done – just that it’s important to be mindful of what City Hall represents. 

City Hall is not a private business. 

It’s a public space that provides public services, and increased security could detract from that mission, separating public employees from the people they serve.  

While some security measures, such as requiring visitors to wear badges, might seem fairly reasonable, others, such as erecting bulletproof windows, might be a security step too far. 

Another important consideration is cost. 

Mass shootings are scary and they get a lot of attention, but they remain statistically rare. How much is too much for cash-strapped municipalities invest in new security measures? 

None of City Hall’s entrances are manned by guards or require visitors to pass through a metal detector. 

But it isn’t correct to say that there’s no security in the building. 

There are court officers, employed by the state Office of Court Administration, on the second floor during court hours. If you want to go to court, you must pass through a metal detector and have your bags and the contents of your pocket examined. 

I can see why some might regard City Hall’s openness as cause for concern, but I like it. 

It’s how public buildings should be, and we should do what we can to keep it that way. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.  

Categories: Opinion

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