By Rich Pollack
Getting into Delray Beach City Hall to pay your water bill, stop by the clerk’s office or take care of other business is now a little more challenging than it has been for years, and it may soon get even tougher.
For decades, visitors could just walk right in without having to stop and explain where they were going.
That changed about a month ago, when the city instituted a policy requiring visitors to sign in at the front desk, leaving their names, whom they planned to see and what time they arrived.
While there have long been discussions about improving security at City Hall and other government buildings, the recent shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 12 people dead increased the sense of urgency to get something done locally.
“This is just the beginning of a multitude of safety and security issues we’re addressing,” interim City Manager Neal de Jesus told city commissioners during a meeting last month. “We’re going to do whatever is necessary to protect our employees and visitors.”
He said the city is looking at security issues at all its buildings, not just City Hall, to ensure that employees and visitors alike are not in harm’s way.
“In today’s world there’s a need to secure facilities,” he said. “Safety and security in municipal buildings has been an ongoing topic for years.”
The interim city manager said the city staff has begun researching security options for City Hall and is considering a system similar to those used by hospitals.
“We intend to go digital,” de Jesus told commissioners.
He said the city is researching the practicality and cost of a system where residents present a driver’s license to be scanned. They then get their photo taken and receive a paper badge with their name and photo on it, as well as the name of the department they’re visiting.
While the city has not had any major security problems at City Hall, there have been issues that raise concerns.
Last month two visitors in the lobby of the city’s building service department got into an altercation, de Jesus said, and there have been threats made against some employees.
“Utility billing gets a multitude of threats of bodily harm on a regular basis,” he told commissioners.
Another problem, de Jesus said, is that staffers frequently find people wandering through City Hall without knowing where they’re going.
A new system, he said, would also provide an additional level of customer service, making it easier for staff to direct visitors who may have trouble getting to where they need to be.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia said that most other cities she visits have some form of city hall security and that Delray has been behind. “I know we’ve come a long way and still have a long way to go,” she said.
Delray is not alone in reviewing its security at municipal buildings. In Boca Raton, which after 9/11 had a metal detector and guard at its City Hall entrance but no longer does, a review of security reinforcements and protocols is in progress.
The previous security procedures were removed as part of a reconfiguration of the City Hall entrance during the recession, according to city officials.
While the recently implemented sign-in process at Delray City Hall has gone smoothly, according to de Jesus, there was at least one resident who was caught off guard.
Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson said she received a call from a resident who was irate over having to sign in.
“The public is not accustomed to what we’ve done and it was a shock,” she said.
De Jesus said he had heard of only that one upset resident. “There have been several hundred people sign in and only one complaint,” he said.