City Hall set to erect new “KEEP OUT” sign

Dave Meslin leading City Idol contestants on a tour of City Hall’s second floor in May 2006.  Photo by HiMY SYeD.

An A+ way to sheepishly admit something of which you’re not proud is to put out a release at 4:16 on a Friday afternoon.  Hence, we can infer that the City is not terribly keen on the press picking up on the draconian new measures taking effect in just over a week’s time that will fundamentally alter the way that the public — advocates, lobbyists, guests, friends, constituents, involved residents, and even some media — engages with City Hall.

The issue regards the “outer ring” of the building’s second floor, where councillors’ offices are located.  Functioning with a kind of Sesame Street urbanism (the hallways are even named “A Street,” “B Street,” and “C Street”), the outer ring is where virtually all of this city’s politics take place: literally, the corridors of power.  It is a welcoming environment that encourages casual wandering and is more than conducive to dropping by offices where you have a friendly relationship with a councillor and/or his or her staff.  As it is, only those with City Hall pass cards (councillors, staff, official members of the press gallery) can freely enter this area, but for anyone else it’s just a matter of knowing one person on the inside who’ll tell the receptionist that it’s cool to let you in.

Under the new rules set to take effect on May 3rd, however, all of this changes:

Visitor Sign-In/Out Procedures – During Business Hours

  • 1. During business hours, Council Reception staff will greet visitors at the reception desk and contact the applicable Councillor’s office.
  • 2. If the visitor is to enter the secured space, the visitor will sign the appropriate Visitor Log. This log is a system with a visitor badge that contains fields that are completed by both the visitor and the receiving party.
  • 3. The Councillor or staff member from the Councillor’s office must attend the reception desk to sign the visitor in. The badge will then be issued to the visitor to visibly wear at all times when in the secured space.
  • 4. The Councillor or staff member will then escort the visitor into the secured space.
  • 5. Visitors must be escorted at all times when in the secured space.
  • 6. At the conclusion of meeting, visitors must be escorted back to a reception desk by the Councillor or staff member.
  • 7. The Visitor Badge must be returned to the Council Receptionist and the Councillor or staff member will be asked to sign the visitor “out.”

The memo sent to councillors today is even more unsettling and clarifies that “If a Visitor is attending another Councillors <sic> office after being signed in by the first Councillors office, the visitor must be escorted back out to the Reception desk so the next office can be appropriately notified of the visitor and can attend to receive them.”  This shreds the ability to conduct in-person advocacy and establish a presence for one’s self and one’s organization at City Hall; if these rules had been in effect twenty years ago, I’m betting that neither Gord Perks nor the Toronto Environmental Alliance, for example, would be familiar names to you today.

Media, too, are given a rough ride.  Even the accredited members of the press gallery (most of whom are named in this PDF) have to abide by these rules if they want to be present in the outer ring before 8 in the morning, after 4:30 in the afternoon, or at any time on a weekend.  And as for non-accredited folks — e.g. most people at Spacing and other online outlets, including yours truly — well… you’d likely blow some bureaucratic minds if you requested a badge.

How did it come to this?  Councillor Michael Thompson was once accosted by a panhandler outside the front doors of City Hall.  Yes.  This National Post article from almost exactly a year ago describes the complaints some councillors had when a basic “City-Wide Security Plan” did not include specific provisions regarding themselves.  Thompson then made a motion asking for staff to look at new measures for the second floor of City Hall:

That report [PDF] ended up going to the September 17th meeting of the Government Management Committee (which, in order to give them an illusion of control over City finances, Miller had stacked with right-wingers), although all the pertinent stuff was contained in a pair of confidential attachments.  The public portion, however, did note that staff had studied Vancouver and Ottawa and concluded that “the current safeguards afforded to Councillors at the City of Toronto City Hall is <sic> equal to and beyond the measures afforded to Councillors in the benchmarked cities.”  The next paragraph, though, points out that City Hall has fewer security measures in place than does Queen’s Park.

The committee forwarded all the secret recommendations on to Council, which then adopted them unanimously.  Portions of one of the confidential reports were later released in the minutes, but excuse me for not reading City Council minutes.  (Like most nerds who are into these things, I generally only read the agendas.)

The south-east corner of the outer ring overlooks the public library (and, at this particular moment, Councillor De Baeremaeker’s skin-tight spandex as well).  Photo by HiMY SYeD.

But the people most affected by these changes are councillors’ staff.  Each councillor has an average of 3.5 people working for them (plus interns), and they are the ones who arrange meetings and receive guests, and are now also expected to serve as babysitters.  “This new security policy is absolutely RIDICULOUS,” one tells me.  “I did a quick canvass of second floor staff, and most see it as not only antidemocratic but also supremely inconvenient.”  That is, someone from each office now has to get up, walk to the entrance where the guest is, escort them back to the office, and then repeat this when the person is leaving.  Some offices are a lot farther away from the entrances than others — your tax dollars at work.

As the report noted, these parts of City Hall “were originally built with the principle of open access and were never originally designed to be protected against the security threats and issues faced today.”  As Benjamin Franklin noted, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Jonathan Goldsbie was originally attracted to municipal politics by its relative accessibility compared to other levels of government.  In his role as a campaigner for the Toronto Public Space Committee, he has found the ability to become an occasional presence on the second floor to be invaluable.

Goldsbie is also coincidentally leading a Jane’s Walk on May 2nd that may include a tour of the second floor’s outer ring.

8 comments

  1. This truly insane policy will fall apart quickly because the staff at the reception desks (when they are present at all) will be overwhelmed with the work involved to issue visitor badges, and because the office staff from many Councillors will simply refuse to put up with this nonsense. Council needs to reverse this policy as soon as possible, and the sleepers who were not even present for the vote should pry themselves out of their office couches and get down to Council Chamber to ensure this is done.

  2. Further to the above, “progressive” Councillors need a few lessons in public sensitivity and democracy: Augimeri, Bussin, Carroll, Davis, Filion, Pantalone. Would-be Mayor Pantalone, what is your position on this? Is a locked down City Hall your idea of good government? As for Councillor Thompson, he should be ashamed that an incident outside of the building has been used for a security takeover.

  3. As quoted above, the report makes reference to “the security threats and issues faced today.” Such as? They do earlier mention “the unfortunate events of September 11,” but that’s in the context of other security reviews, so not as reprehensible as it might have been…

  4. “If a Visitor is attending another Councillors office after being signed in by the first Councillors office, the visitor must be escorted back out to the Reception desk so the next office can be appropriately notified of the visitor and can attend to receive them.”

    It sure sounds like some Councillors really, really don’t like the idea of the rabble — even once they’ve been duly signed in — knocking on their door unheralded.

    Could someone in the know clarify precisely which groups of people, if any, other than badge-ified media wouldn’t need to follow these rules to visit a Councillor during the prescribed times?

  5. Greg:

    Essentially, the new rule is that you have to have a badge visible at all times, and you are either someone who already has one in the form of a City Hall access card with your photo on it, or you have to be issued a temporary one in accordance with the new procedures.

  6. This is just a way to formalize things and keeping a record on who visit the Councillors. That list should be made public in my opinion. That way if a Councillor votes for xyz, we can see if a company benefiting for xyz has visited the Councillor.

    I have never had an issue accessing my Councillor or other Councillors. Heck, I even talked to a Councillor of Toronto East York Community Council (I live in Scarborough), about an issue there and did not have a problem. I was talking to the Councillor in 10 minutes (When I arrived there, the Councillor was on the phone).

    What is wrong with keeping a record on who visits Councillors? I don’t think anyone should have free run of the outer ring. I hope the list in made public, I want to know who my Councillor is talking to, an example of having this list public would of been for the billboard tax, how many Councillors talked to billboard companies?

    How is having to sign in and escorted to the Councillor’s office stopping you from calling your Councillor’s office or even e-mailing them?

    Heck, I am going to call Councillor Moscoe’s office and ask for one of those “McGuinty backstabbed” bumperstickers. 🙂

  7. These rules are much what I have experienced at other City Halls and corporate offices all over the world. The reality is that there is a populist anger out there fueled by the Glen Becks and the Rob Fords of the world. I have have always been surprised at how easy it was to get to a councillors office. I think these changes have a lot to do with nutbars and less to do with others. Probably after some time their will be a relaxing and adjustment.

  8. What everyone talking about security, here and over in the comment stream on the National Post article, seems to miss is that the security applies only to the offices. You want waltz into City Hall, go to meetings and visit other offices without any sign in or security protocol. If the issue is to lock down the building, they are nowhere near that point, and that’s what makes the whole issue of access to Councillors so ridiculous.

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