Lockdown at City Hall

Erica Butler doesn't need to show ID.

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At about a quarter to six on the average Tuesday evening, you will find a small collection of city staff and councillors milling about the front steps of city hall (and the surrounding parking lot) grabbing a final few puffs on their cigarettes before heading inside to do the business of the municipality. And occasionaly, there’s an extra contingent posted at the entrance to the SuperCity’s seat of government. Depending on what’s up for discussion at a given evening’s council session, a number of Halifax Regional Police officers may be stationed at city hall, just in case.

“Normally what will happen is if we get information there may be a hot topic that evening and there may be some people coming that may cause some problems then we will station some of our members down there for security,” says constable Mark Hobeck. “But it’s not a regular thing for us.”

“It’s more for crowd control,” says Deborah Story of HRM Communications. “If you get huge crowds of people, the police are able to do a better job organizing crowds. That’s the main reason they would call in the police. Or if there’s something controversial, or someone who they’re aware of who might cause a stir. But most times we don’t know. It’s just if they expect a large crowd.”

Which is why is was strange to see three police officers on duty at City Hall on September 6. The most controversial item on the agenda was a proposal to increase the SuperCity’s hotel tax by .5 percent and to put the money into a reserve for the future construction of major cultural facilities. About a half dozen well-dressed and well-spoken hotel managers came to speak at the public hearing on the by-law, themselves surprised by the police presence. The rest of the council gallery consisted of city staff on hand to answer questions and a handful of citizens just there to sit and listen.

So why so many police officers? The unofficial word is members of the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty were expected to protest, although according to HCAP organizer Capp Larson, no such action was planned. “I don’t know what they were expecting that night,” says constable Hobeck. But apparently something worth the allocation of at least three on-duty officers.

Even more surprising than the mere presence of police on such a ho-hum night was that as I entered City Hall, a police officer stopped to ask me what I had come for that evening. He then let me know that I should sign in and show some identification to staff inside. I was baffled. Proof of identification is not required in order to attend council, any more than it is to walk down the street.

Police are not the only security measure on hand at City Hall. Commissionaires are on duty whenever the building is open, and there are 16 video cameras placed throughout the building. And in the past few months, additional security features have been added. The Argyle Street entrance to City Hall is now kept locked, forcing citizens to walk around to the front entrance of the bulding. And last month a wooden gate was installed between the front hall and the main building. In small measures, the already intimidating building is becoming less welcoming. But that’s not the intention, says Deborah Story.

“It’s just a way so that the commissionaire can keep track of who’s coming and going from the building. We certainly don’t want to send the message that we’ve cut back on the access to city hall,” says Story, “because we haven’t. We still want it to be accessible.”

I’m open to any ideas about what they’re scared of. Send theories to my secure email: ericab@thecoast.ca.

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