by Glenn Tschimpke
With its cavernous atrium and free-flowing foot traffic, the City’s St. James Building may be an architectural wonder to some. To City Council member Elaine Brown, it represents a gaping security hole.
Increased security awareness at airports, court houses and other public facilities led Brown to consider the safety of City structures like the St. James Building and the City Hall Annex — or lack thereof. While other government buildings have proactive security measures in place, the two major City structures offer passive protection at best from terrorists, which leaves Brown uncomfortable.
“I’m calling for an evaluation of the security at City Hall,” said Brown. “Right now, the awareness for all of America is that people want to feel safe at home and they want to feel safe at work.”
In a letter to City Council president Matt Carlucci, Brown expressed her concern for the vulnerability of the St. James Building. She cited actions taken at other public buildings like the courthouse, School Board building and the JEA building to make them more secure while continuing to allow public access, such as adding guards, metal detectors and checking bags.
“Although I applaud openness and access by the public [of City Hall],” she wrote. “I think it prudent at this point to more closely examine what safeguards are in place or should be in place so as to make our building and those within it safer.”
Carlucci was receptive to the idea, saying he welcomes a deeper look at City Hall’s security weaknesses.
“Elaine had some concerns and wanted to see if we could do an assessment of security on the building,” he said. “Because a lot of public enters the building and because we want to make sure the public is safe and and our employees are safe, we want to do an assessment of the building — nothing that’s going to be restrictive to the public coming in and I don’t think it’s going to be burdensome.”
Currently, the St. James Building employs two security guards, one to monitor cars entering the underground parking garage and another to patrol the premises. There are also nine security cameras aimed at the three major entrances, elevators, stairs and the lobby. There are no metal detectors or proactive presence of security guards. Bags are rarely checked. To help keep tabs of who comes and goes, the City is in the process of issuing identification cards to all City employees.
“I’m glad to see somebody in City Council a little bothered by it [lack of security]. I really am,” said one guard, who chose not to be identified. “We probably have seven ways you can get in [to City Hall]. With two guys doing it, you can’t do it all.”
Although the guard admitted the current level of security is inadequate, he said there has never been an incident of suspicious activities in the building.
If an assessment is performed internally by the City, the responsibility could fall to the emergency preparedness division in conjunction with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
“In this climate, just about anything we do is worth looking at,” said Chip Patterson, chief of the Emergency Preparedness Division for the City. “I think it’s important for us to evaluate. I’d have to find out if that’s something we’d be involved with.”
While the legislative portion of City Hall generally supports tweaking physical security in the building, the posture of the mayor’s office is in direct contrast.
“The mayor strongly believes that this is a public facility that belongs to the public,” said Mayor John Delaney’s press secretary, Sharon Ashton. “We have security guards and security cameras and we’re getting ID cards for City employees next month. We can’t let fear rule our lives.”
Ashton said the mayor has two plain-clothed, armed police officers available to him who work in City Hall.
Despite the mayor’s contentedness on City Hall security, Council members are moving forward to shore up their buildings’ security concerns.
“I have been working several weeks with the General Counsel’s office preparing a bill that I intend to file within the next few days that addresses the issue of security,” said Council member Ginger Soud. “Yes, I am concerned not only about building security but security across the board.”