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Closed-door policy at Ashland City Hall

It used to be that anyone could wander into Ashland City Hall and expect help in their dealings with the city manager, recorder, city attorney and human resources.

No more.

Because of an increasing number of people who have become loud and menacing, the city on Jan. 1 put an end to the open-door policy, locking all doors except the entry to the utility payment office and requiring all visitors to have appointments or be signed in by an employee.

The buttoned-up security may have paid off Wednesday when utility department employees had to deal with a man who threatened suicide in their lobby, an incident that went on for 45 minutes, said City Administrator Martha Bennett. Police came and talked to the man, who was then released.

City Recorder Barbara Christensen, whose office on a ground-floor corner previously had a public door, said she had to call police a few months ago when a "disturbed individual who had issues with our judge was yelling and using body language that was threatening. I was scared."

Christensen said she, like other staff, wanted to continue direct access for the public. Continued threatening incursions, however, changed her mind.

Emerging from business in City Hall Thursday, City Councilman Eric Navickas said, "I'm disappointed they had to take these actions. It doesn't represent openness, like you want to see from government, but it's been a long-standing problem.

"It's always better to err of the side of openness in government," he said.

Threatening behavior can happen with regular residents who are known to city staff, as well as from strangers who appear unstable, said Bennett.

Navickas said city management analyst Ann Seltzer was harassed by someone who demanded action against "chemtrails" (white streaks in the sky from airplanes). Bennett noted the person was a frequent visitor to city hall who was unescorted and became "fairly belligerent."

"We're tying to make sure that people who work and visit here are safe," said Bennett. "You can't wander around here. You sign in and get a tag and we escort you. The vast majority of people come here for business reasons and they often come without appointment. The new system is not friendly to that. It's not as casual as it used to be."

Ali Brooks, paralegal for the city attorney in an upstairs office, said that before the new system, "I had hostile people come in here, upset about city things." She now feels "absolutely safe," she said.

Under the new security, employees use coded cards that are read by a scanner and punch numbers in a keypad so they can be buzzed through three locked doors. Only one door, into the utility department, is open to the public. Visitors are greeted by clerks behind the payment counter who can call staff members to escort visitors.

Staff members are trained to deal with unexpected situations from the public, said Pat Woods, customer service manager for the utility department, who dealt Wednesday with the man threatening suicide.

"It was no problem. No one felt vulnerable. I called the police and they gave him a wellness check and talked to him," said Woods.

Developer Brent Thompson objected to the higher security and said doors should be open, with employees able to trip a switch to summon police in the event of danger.

"I have strong feelings that government should be accessible. We don't have a crime or danger problem," said Thompson. "There could be an occasional rare person who could somehow annoy officials, but there is a police presence on the plaza. There are ways of controlling access. They could leave the door open all the time and have a trip switch to where someone could monitor it.

"City officials are barricaded in there because they're afraid of the public, and that's really absurd," Thompson continued. "We have someplace where you can't gain access. It just can't become a way of life, where everyone is afraid of everybody. The people we pay to run our cities should be accessible to us easily without having to go through a checkpoint."

The new system marks the end of an era when town folk walking by could feel comfortable to drop in and chat, Bennett observed. "It's inconvenient, but it's safer for everyone."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Ashland City Recorder Barbara Christensen walks past the stairway leading into Ashland City Hall. The city no longer allows public access to the building via the stairway, and new security measures require visitors to have an appointment and be escorted in the building. - Jamie Lusch