Council meetings may get police presence

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Concerned about shootings at other municipal buildings and by a recent incident in which an aggrieved Oshkosh citizen was possibly casing City Hall, Police Chief Dean M. Smith has recommended steps to increase security at Common Council meetings.

Based on his recommendations and others from a study group he was part of, the council is considering:

  • Posting an officer in council meetings.
  • Seating citizens farther away from officials.
  • Making speakers preregister before commenting.
  • Adding a sign that weapons are prohibited.

“From our perspective here in Oshkosh we recognize that we, at times, have contentious meetings that have the potential to introduce highly charged emotions to a council meeting,” Smith said in a June 13 memo.

“A major concern that must be considered is that we recognize that we want to have an open government while balancing the safety of all those who may participate,” he added.

In his memo Smith referred to several shootings in Minnesota. He also described an Oshkosh citizen who was pursuing a complaint that was scheduled to come before the Police and Fire Commission.

“The person was observed going into council chambers before the hearing when nothing was occurring in the chambers and walking around,” Smith said. “He was later picked up for a mental evaluation.”

Smith provided a list of nine recommendations to improve security as part of an overall review of the meeting room where the council meets. He said most of them would involve “minimal costs.”

One way to avoid paying overtime for police protection would be to assign the job to a supervisor who would be on duty during the meeting time, he said.

The changes in meeting protocol and the physical layout of the council chamber are expected to be voted on July 11.

“Chief Smith has had some, I think, very solid ideas on what we do need in this chamber to make it more secure,” said Mayor Steve Cummings during a recent council meeting. “I think it’s needed.”

Cummings has been part of the study group that has been looking at a variety of changes to the council chamber, not all of which have to do with security.

The total cost is estimated at less than $5,000. Most of the money, about $4,500, would go to a new system for tracking which council member is scheduled to speak next.

Smith noted that other communities have installed either Kevlar panels or some kind of physical barriers to keep citizens away and to protect officials in case of an active shooter. “I do not recommend that we incorporate this into our plan,” he said.

But public access to the chamber would be restricted to a single entry, and weapons would be expressly prohibited with new signage installed. (Weapons are already prohibited in City Hall generally.)

Another proposal would push audience seating back so that the front row would align with the part of the existing dais where staff members sit.

Citizens who wish to speak to the council would no longer be able to simply show up. Instead they would have to fill out a “request to speak” registration form that would be available online and on a kiosk outside the council chamber.

Council Member Lori Palmeri, who was also part of the study group, said the starting point for the review of the council chamber was operational and the goal was to make meetings more efficient.

She said, for example, the new signup system for commenters would make it easier to handle large numbers of commenters and would allow citizens to submit supplemental material to the council. Other changes would make it easier for city staff to respond to questions that come up during meetings.

The proposals before the council are subject to revision, Palmeri said. “It’s not in final form. These are just some starting points for discussion.”

Photo: The Oshkosh Common Council at its June 27 meeting, via Oshkosh Media.

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Miles Maguire

Miles Maguire is the author of Advanced Reporting: Essential Skills for 21st Century Journalism. He was the founding editor of the Oshkosh Community News Network, a nonprofit online news organization whose work was cited as a notable innovation in journalism in the 2005 Knight-Batten Awards. Send questions, comments and suggestions to miles.maguire@yahoo.com.

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