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Don't let fear build barriers to access in public meetings

The video is frightening, no doubt.

A heavyset man appears on screen, spray-painting a menacing symbol on the wall of the meeting room of the Bay County School Board. He sputters a vulgarity and displays a gun. Before long, he fires in the general direction of School Board members.

The only person killed during this bizarre episode last month was the man with the pistol, Clay Duke, though he may have the same lasting legacy of others who commit public acts of violence: a slight loss of convenience and openness for the rest of us, a little less democracy.

In the discussion about safety in school board chambers that followed Duke's attack, one of the most concerned officials was Hernando School Board chairman James Yant.

Rethinking security at meetings should be a "top priority," Yant said. "We're just sitting there, sitting ducks, I guess you could say. … We need to look into that."

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt has now done so, and plans to make a recommendation to the board on the issue in the next few weeks.

Before we get to it, here's his challenge, one that's harder than it sounds: make sure everybody's reasonably safe while keeping the meetings truly public.

The big metal detectors, the ones that look like free-standing door jambs, feel appropriate and necessary at airports and at the entrance to a criminal courtroom. Nobody doubts the potential danger.

How about the one at the Hernando County Government Center? I understand the economics. It costs the same to have a security station at the main entrance as it does to just screen the people who enter the judicial wing. Still, I kind of resent passing through this gantlet every time I want to talk to a county planner or check a court file.

An even clearer example of where they don't belong is libraries. These seem safe so far and, surely, we don't want to discourage anyone from educating themselves.

Nor do we want to dissuade people from meeting face-to-face with people they elected, getting to voice their opinions and listen to opposing ones, which is the way all school board meetings have always worked.

But now, unfortunately, there's a proven danger, a threat for which Blavatt has to account.

Thankfully, he's ruled out a full-fledged security checkpoint like the one at the government center. At about $20,000, the equipment is too expensive, he said.

But the district already has access to metal-detecting wands, and assigning one of the district's school resource officers to pull a shift at board meetings would cost little extra. The armed deputy could then remain at the meeting. I like that idea, an unobtrusive sentinel ready to step in at any sign of trouble.

But these are rare, close to nonexistent.

In my 20-plus years of attending public meetings, I don't remember seeing anyone threatened, at least not physically.

Given this level of danger, I think searching people with wands is a little much, potentially unwieldy if the meetings are crowded, an unnecessary intrusion if they are not. Remember the rallying cry after 9/11 — that accepting any loss of freedom was "letting the terrorists win"?

Well, Duke, in his small way, was a terrorist. Let's not give him even this little victory.

Don't let fear build barriers to access in public meetings 01/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 7:36pm]
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