Toronto politicians are considering major changes to security screening at city hall, but several councillors say the proposed measures would make the public building less accessible to constituents.
City staff have tabled a report calling for a raft of security measures, including airport-style metal detectors, X-ray machines, hand-held security wands, a glass partition separating the public from the city council chamber, and physical barriers to prevent vehicles from driving onto pedestrian areas outside.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said violent attacks around the world make it necessary to re-examine city hall’s security measures. But he would not support or oppose any of the recommendations until the city hears from members of the public who visit and work at city hall.
“Nobody is pushing any panic buttons in these reports … but they say the obvious,” Tory said. “When you have the iconic city hall… and you have all the people who visit here and who work here every day, it is one building that you can’t afford to say, ‘well, it’ll be fine.'”
City hall has “almost no security” compared to other public spaces in Toronto, Tory added.
“The public go to rock concerts, they go to hockey games, they go to many, many other buildings in the city including Queen’s Park, court houses, even sometimes private sector office buildings, where they face a lot more security than they face here,” he said. “I’m not sure which one is right, but I’m saying there’s a clear discrepancy between the two.”
The recommended upgrades — which would cost $774,000 per year for new security staff and $500,000 for one-time capital purchases — stem from confidential security assessments conducted by Toronto police and Public Safety Canada earlier this year. Neither police nor the federal security agency would provide any details from their respective assessments when asked.
The proposed measures are being criticized by some city councillors, who say the changes would make it harder for Torontonians to participate in city business.
“One of the things that makes our government unique is that, with virtually everything we debate here, any member of the public can walk in … and address that issue in front of city councillors or a committee meeting,” said Coun. Gord Perks.
“I don’t want to create any sense that there is a barrier between someone who has an unpopular opinion and that deputant’s chair.”
The proposed security measures would not necessarily make city hall safe from major threats, Perks added.
“I don’t believe that the kinds of measures being discussed here could prevent a determined person who is prepared to lose their own life,” he said. “The thing that everyone’s scared of isn’t even prevented by this kind of thing.”
The proposed enhancements are counter-intuitive to making city hall an active, vibrant public space, Coun. Paula Fletcher added.
“City hall is a public location, a public office, for people to get parking passes, get building permits, go to their wedding, take out a library book, pay their taxes, pay their water bill,” Fletcher said. “We (already) have our own security and we have all the doors covered.”
But at least one Toronto councillor is in favour of ramping up security.
“We councillors as well as staff are at people’s mercy,” said Coun. Jim Karygiannis. “Unless we start thinking about safety, unless we start doing whatever we can to prevent this, somebody’s going to find a loophole (in security) and then we’re going to say why didn’t think about this? Why didn’t we do something?”
If approved by city council, the proposed changes would bring Toronto in step with Edmonton and Calgary, each of which have instituted airport-style screening before their city council meetings.
Vancouver’s City Hall has visitors “check in” to the building if they intend to speak at a public meeting, and sometimes enacts bans on large bags or heavy objects ahead of events with a higher “risk profile,” but metal detectors are not used, nor do security officers perform any kind of physical searches.
Ottawa’s City Hall does not have metal detectors or baggage screening, though city staff say they are considering vehicle barriers outside.
The City of Toronto’s corporate security force manages safety at city hall, but works closely with Toronto police “as a practice,” city spokesperson Wynna Brown said, adding that extra security is sometimes provided for certain council meetings and events.
Torontonians will have the chance to weigh in on the proposed measures when they are debated by the city’s executive committee, before the entire council votes on them.