Open government needs open doors
The failure of government in the United States to control random gun mayhem has reached another ugly stage when employees of a municipal government feel they must lock themselves in to a building that should be open to the citizens to whom it belongs.
If city or town staff feel vulnerable to ill-intentioned and even dangerous visitors, they are not being paranoid. Making the public press a buzzer and state their business over an intercom is not a solution, however. It is a workaround in the absence of adequate gun control laws and a symptom of increasing fear among Americans of other Americans.
During the pandemic, virtually all town and city buildings closed to the public. Meetings went online. Employees worked from home. As a public health policy, closing was essential and effective, but it came at a cost to the openness of government in a free society. Reasonable people recognized it as an emergency solution that must and generally did end as the pandemic eased.
New London City Hall, alone among public buildings in the region, has continued to keep the doors locked.
That is not to make light of employees' concerns in any way, but to point out that our free society has come to this: New London locks City Hall. Regional School District 18 will be deploying armed security at the Lyme and Old Lyme schools. Reasonable people in positions of authority may see it as a choice between normalcy and protecting those for whom they are responsible. But in reality some actions are like applying a tourniquet — essential in an emergency but injurious if used for too long. We must not turn our entire society into a high security encampment.
Mayor Michael Passero told David Collins of The Day that it was a decision by City Hall employees to ask to continue to control entry as pandemic dangers receded. It is reasonable for them to want to keep relatively safe from the lingering risks of Covid infection. There have also been unpleasant incidents of people leaving behind fouled bathrooms. As understandable as those concerns are, they are insufficient to justify keeping the public out. In the past, that would never even been considered.
It is only fair to point out that The Day, also located in a downtown building, requires visitors to use an intercom to request admission to the building. But The Day office is not a public building that functions as the only place to conduct government business such as obtaining marriage licenses, and searching property titles, deeds and other public records.
Limiting access is a slippery slope that can swiftly lead to unannounced public meetings and other violations of the state's Freedom of Information law. The motives for secrecy don't have to be corrupt; far more often it is a matter of taking open government too casually.
The short-term solution to open access to City Hall is to employ a security guard. It is ridiculous to think that the budget cannot accommodate such a position when the City Council has just raised the salary for future mayors. The new salary level recognizes that New London is one of Connecticut's key urban centers, like Hartford. Hartford has security at the entrance to City Hall. An urban neighborhood is undoubtedly apt to account for more walk-ins than a suburban town hall to which most visitors would have to drive.
The long-term solution is for Congress to acknowledge the societal havoc that mass killings are having on Americans' sense of safety.
Keep our town and city halls open. The concerns that led New London to retain its "buzzed in" policy are genuine and understandable, given the current security environment in this country, but closing the public off this way, and making folks identify what they are visiting City Hall about, is not the answer.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.
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