Bloomington city council wants its meeting space ‘hardened’ against safety threats

Thursday night marked the final round of departmental budget hearings for Bloomington’s city council.

Mayor John Hamilton was present in person to hear calls from several councilmembers to add security enhancements to the city council chambers.

That would likely mean adding money to the proposed 2024 budget for the facilities maintenance division of the public works department.

Responding to councilmember questions after his presentation on the facilities budget, public works director Adam Wason indicated that there were no security improvements for the council chambers in the 2024 spending plan.

The topic of hardening the council chambers got some public discussion at a budget advance meeting last year. But based on comments from councilmembers on Thursday, concerns about security for the council’s meeting space have a years-long history.

So it has become a sore point.

Asked about the topic by the B Square after Thursday’s meeting, Hamilton said the administration is always focused on public safety, for everyone, including city councilmembers.

As for what specifically the administration has done to add to the security of council chambers, Hamilton indicated that the administration does not publicize specific security measures, “We’ve been talking about it, and we’ve taken steps, and we don’t talk about those steps.”

As far as adding physical infrastructure in the council chambers, Hamilton said that between now and when the budget is finalized, “there’s room for discussion.”

At a budget advance meeting last year, on June 14, 2022, the topic of better security for the council chambers got some public discussion.

Last year, councilmember Jim Sims floated the topic, saying, “We need to do something about hardening the council chambers. Somehow.” He said that for some people that might be “bad optics” but added, “I can give you examples of worse optics.”

Sims described his experience during city council meetings, telling his colleagues, “And with all due respect, I’m the one who gets Zoom-bombed, and they say ‘N-word, kill yourself’ and N-word about 300 times in the chat box.”

One specific idea mentioned at last year’s budget advance meeting was to harden the dais with concrete blocks, so that it would provide protection against gunfire for councilmembers seated behind it.

On Thursday night, the topic of security in council chambers was introduced by councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith.

Her question to Wason: “Is there any further consideration about hardening council chambers to make it more safe?” Wason responded by saying, “That’s been an ongoing discussion amongst, I believe, public safety and the council.” Wason added, “Our budget does not have additional funding for that, in this request.”

Councilmember Steve Volan followed up by noting that in 2020, the council had received an “estimate about the cost to do a couple of things.” He asked, “Has that been set by the wayside? I mean, do we need to issue a request to have the chambers hardened?”

Volan asked, “Is there a reason why we can’t do something to harden the dais, for example?”

Wason told Volan, “I think it’s going to be a conversation that I go back and have with the mayor’s office, police department and others—that we’re having those conversations with council leadership.”

During comment time on the facilities budget, Volan noted that there was no sergeant-at-arms present in the council chambers that night.

Under Bloomington’s city code, the chief of police or their designee is the council’s sergeant-at-arms. An officer is typically present for regular meetings of the city council.

Volan said, “We could have been doing some things by now to make this room safer. And we don’t even have a sergeant-at-arms in the room.”

Councilmember Dave Rollo followed up supporting the long historical timeframe that Volan had described: “I recall that requests have been made pretty much yearly, I think for 10 years.”

When it was Sims’s turn, he confirmed the yearly character of requests to add security measures to the city council chambers. “I agree with my other two colleagues that this is a yearly request,” Sims said.

“There’s too many examples, now, throughout our country, our state, for us not to be more considerate of the safety of these nine—or eight tonight—folks.” Sims reduced the count of councilmembers from nine to eight to capture the fact that Kate Rosenbarger was absent on Thursday.

Sims noted that even while he serves in a legislative role in the community, for every meeting he has a higher priority: “My number one concern is getting home to my wife and family safe after every meeting.” He continued, “And there are some meetings, I just don’t feel that way.” Sims added, “Nothing’s happened. But I just think that’s important. And I don’t want to be around when something happens.”

Ron Smith’s criticism of the administration on the topic of council chambers security was probably the sharpest of any councilmember. Smith said, “I’m really disappointed that nothing’s been done for security of the chambers.” He continued, “Last year when we had meetings—and I guess the meetings were just to placate the council.”

Smith called it “really disturbing” that the administration has not taken action to add security to the council chambers. Smith gestured towards Hamilton and said, “I request right now that… there’s some hundreds of 1000s of dollars that should be put into the budget, when it comes to us for final approval, to make [council chambers] safer.”

Smith said, “It’s been requested for a while. It’s just a really sad comment on how the council is considered.”

Piedmont-Smith bookended the topic by saying, “I obviously am also concerned about my safety, and the safety of my colleagues, and others who are presenting here in chambers.” She continued, “A few years ago, there was a mass shooting in a town council chambers in Missouri.”

Piedmont-Smith added, “I mean that it can happen. It can happen anywhere. It can happen here, and we need to be better prepared for it.”

Piedmont-Smith wrapped up by saying she would like to have conversations between now and the end of September about the security of council chambers.

The final, possibly amended budget proposal will be presented to the city council on Sept. 27, and is cued up for an adoption vote on  Oct. 11.


4 thoughts on “Bloomington city council wants its meeting space ‘hardened’ against safety threats

  1. “Last year when we had meetings—and I guess the meetings were just to placate the council.”

    Ya think? The H-T had an article on August 4th about the scatter garden for cremated remains at Rose Hill Cemetery. The article noted that the garden “fulfills a vision of Mayor John Hamilton”: After eight budgets I think we can say his vision does not extend to the requested changes in the council chamber.

    It’s good to be king.

  2. If the city code calls for a sergeant-at-arms (police chief or designee) at each council meeting, who dropped the ball on that? How many times has that happened? Is that noted in the minutes, that the sergeant-at-arms was/was not present? Should it be recorded? Can the council or someone else cite the police chief for violating the code? Perhaps the council should recess until an officer is present? Perhaps the General Assembly will expect council members to “pack heat” as they have for teachers? Perhaps school boards should also be so empowered since they seem to draw more emotional outbursts than the city council. That should make everyone present feel really safe…

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