Laurel officials have completed a project that some residents believe has taken away a bit of the city's small-town charm and openness.
At the recommendation of local law enforcement officials, a security glass wall was installed this spring that covers the entire reception area in the front lobby of the Laurel Municipal Center. To access the city offices, visitors now have to be buzzed in through a glass door and escorted to their destination. A second glass security door was also installed in the area of the mayor and City Council offices, and requires a badge to access.
"The benefits of having this is that it sets a professional atmosphere and tone, and it gives city employees an added feeling of security," said City Administrator Kristie Mills. "It's working out well."
Before the glass wall was installed, residents and others doing business with the city were able to talk freely over a counter with the receptionist in the lobby, and once given a visitor's pass, go to a specific office. Now, after they are buzzed in, a city employee escorts visitors in the building between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. At other times, Mills said, "If the visitor is someone we know, we tell the receptionist to send them back. If we don't know them, someone will come up to escort them back."
Visitors waiting in the lobby for clearance, including those there for passport services, are also not allowed to use the building's bathrooms without an escort.
There have been calls in blogs for the security glass to be removed, and residents visiting the Municipal Center seem to have mixed feelings about it.
But Laurel resident Rithy Palacios, who was at the municipal center June 20 to apply for a passport, sees the additional security as a good thing.
"It makes the building seem secure, and it's professional-looking," Palacios said. "I'd rather it be like this than a place where anyone is able to walk in and out all the time."
Baba Kaloga, also at the Municipal Center for a passport, said he likes the extra security the glass provides.
"I'm sure it makes the receptionist feel safer, and it's safer for the city workers in case someone comes here with bad intentions," Kaloga said. "It's a good idea."
But Innocent Opara was surprised to see the security glass and was not pleased with his experience of having to go through the additional security check.
"I used to sign in and go along my way, but now there are a lot of restrictions," Opara said. "I have to be buzzed in, and the escort made me feel a bit uncomfortable. It wasn't like this before, and I didn't feel comfortable with it."
Police suggested security measures
According to Mills, the security glass and tighter restrictions were under consideration by city officials for several years because of past incidents that had occurred in the building.
"We've had people who have gotten upset and yelled, and we had to calm them down. Some became upset in code enforcement (offices) when they got a violation and thought they shouldn't have," Mills said. "But those incidents were few and far between."
City Spokesman James Collins said Police Department officials were asked to do a security vulnerability survey of the Municipal Center in January, and the security glass wall in the reception area was one of several recommendations they made that the city implemented.
"We looked at the windows, landscaping and anything that could be a security concern; and determined there were some security issues within the building that could impact city personnel," said Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin. "Once someone gets past the front desk, they have free run of the building, so we recommended more security and more limited access to some areas."
Although the security glass has its detractors, McLaughlin feels it's necessary because there have been several instances outside of Laurel of government employees and buildings being targeted for attacks.
"I know a lot of people don't like it, but in the world we live in, employees need more safety," he said. "Who would have thought that what happened to (Rep. Gabrielle) Giffords would have happened. We're trying to be proactive versus responding to something afterwards."
According to Collins, some disorderly incidents have occurred in front of the Municipal Center and at the front desk. He said most people having a free run of the building are those who come to City Hall to apply for a passport, sometimes in large numbers.
"There was one guy who was upset because he didn't have all the documents he needed, and he became confrontational with the passport agent," Collins said. "I tried to calm him down, but he wouldn't cooperate. So I called the police, and they removed him. But we don't get a lot of incidents like that."
Passport Agent Joan Anderson likes the security glass and said it has kept children from wandering the halls.
"It helps me control the crowds, especially on Tuesday nights when It's crowded and we work late," Anderson said. "I've never felt as if my life was threatened here, but I feel safer, and wish they'd done this sooner and not when I'm nearing the end of my tenure."
During City Hall events, such as the annual Mayor's Open House, Collins said the reception area door can remain open to allow those attending to roam around. He believes residents will become accustomed to the glass wall eventually.
"It's not designed to keep people out, but it's for our safety and anyone who comes to City Hall," Collins said. "People can still go around City Hall and get their business done, so we don't want to shut people out but are just being proactive."