While conceding that security at the new Benton City Hall represents "a cultural change" for the community, the city's finance commissioner says the measures were necessary for the safety of employees.
The new city hall at 1403 S. Main St. opened its doors in August, with city officials and staff now keeping their offices behind a locked door that effectively limits direct access from the public. In order to visit with a city employee working in the building, visitors must use a phone in the building's lobby to first call the employee's direct extension.
Finance Commissioner Dennis Miller said the building, previously used by Benton School District No. 47, received an extensive remodel prior to city staff moving in, and he worked with Police Chief Kyle Melvin to develop a security plan for the facility. That plan included the addition of the door, turning what was a half wall in the lobby area into a full wall, and the addition of 10 security cameras covering both inside and outside areas.
"You have to keep in mind the society we're living in," said Miller, pointing to a string of national incidents that includes, most recently, an attack at Ohio State University on Monday. "That could have easily happened here."
Miller said the new system is not about limiting access to city employees, but rather keeping them safe from any potential threats. Miller said he was not aware of any past security incidents involving city employees, and a records request made by the Evening News shows no record of the Benton Police Department responding to city hall offices because of an employee-initiated complaint in at least the past five years.
The locked-door policy has raised some questions. In August, Tom Carter asked the city council why he no longer had immediate access to the mayor, city clerk or zoning office. Miller told him the city was being proactive with safety measures. Mayor Fred Kondritz said people would "no longer be able to interrupt meetings that are ongoing at city hall," according to minutes of the Aug. 22 meeting.
Police Chief Kyle Melvin said he took the work of properly securing the building seriously, particularly because of the financial transactions that take place there.
"Security and safety is always something I'm going to take seriously," Melvin said. "Of course I'm going to make sure our employees are safe."
Aside from the locked door and the phone, the only other significant feature of the lobby area is two glass windows used primarily for conducting business between citizens and the water department. Miller said the glass would not prevent any sort of direct attack on employees, but it serves as a safeguard all the same.
"It's not foolproof," Miller said. "Anybody could bust through those pieces of glass, but it's some kind of deterrent."
Melvin said such measures can serve to delay the escalation of an incident.
"Our main goal is to prevent crime," he said.