City Hall’s Unwelcome Mat

Could a fatal shooting like the one Wednesday in New York’s City Hall happen in Los Angeles? It could. Security at Los Angeles City Hall is an odd mixture of tight and lax, allowing friends of council members and anyone else in the know to reserve a spot in the underground garage. Once there, they can take the elevator upstairs without passing through a metal detector or clearing any security screening.

The irony is that there is fairly tight security for everyone else, including most Los Angeles voters and residents who want to see their government in action and speak to their elected representatives. In fact, the City Hall security system sends constituents and would-be visitors an unmistakable message: Just stay home.

Start with your approach toward the building’s primary entrance on Spring Street. Walk up the granite steps, under the row of fluttering American flags, through the arches and toward the grand bronze gates that form the backdrop for countless movies and TV shows. On any given day, film crews walk through here, as do city employees wielding key cards.

But not you — the resident citizen and taxpayer. You can’t come in this way. Didn’t you read the sign? “Welcome to City Hall. Public entrance is Main Street entrance.” Until a couple of weeks ago there was a second sign right next to it on which someone, in a fit of honesty, taped over the “Welcome to.”

Don’t know where Main Street is from here? Tough. Don’t expect anyone to tell you. There is no information booth, no guard, no map, no arrow on the unwelcome sign.

It’s not around the corner to the right. That’s the ceremonial entrance, where important people make speeches. That’s not for you. And it’s not around the corner to the left. That’s for people who work here. You have to keep going around the block, until you get to something that looks like the service entrance, where they unload the toner and the desk chairs.

There. That’s your entrance. Now get in line.

First you get to the metal detector and the X-ray scanner. Nothing uncommon about those machines these days. It’s hard to imagine al Qaeda wanting to disrupt a Board of Public Works meeting, but it was hard to imagine flying passenger jets into skyscrapers. These are scary times, and security at any government building makes sense.

But there’s more than the electronic screening. You also have to pull out your driver’s license, and security guards scan the magnetic strip on the back — recording your name, your address, your age. If you owe child support or have outstanding traffic tickets, the guards, theoretically, will know. They don’t do this at federal, state or county buildings. They don’t even do this at the airport, the one Los Angeles site that al Qaeda is known to have targeted.

After they intimidate you, they humiliate you. The guard hands you a sticker that reads “VISITOR” in blue, and you have to stick it on your T-shirt or blazer and keep it on whenever you are in the building.

What the guards don’t tell you is that some of this routine is optional. You didn’t have to get your ID scanned if you didn’t want to. If you stick up for your First Amendment right to speak and petition and assemble without registering, they still have to let you in. But your VISITOR tag will be in bright red, instead of blue, so the guards can keep an eye on you.

Perhaps the guards are keeping an eye on the wrong visitors. In council chambers, as you prepare to address your elected representatives, you will notice a handful of business-suited people sporting plastic pocket tags with the city seal embossed in two colors. Who are they?

More often than not, they are lobbyists and political consultants who called ahead and got free parking at City Hall. With it they got these special tags, and they entered the building from the underground garage without ever getting their licenses scanned, their briefcases X-rayed or themselves checked out by a metal detector. You, with your $15 parking tab, your three-block walk to City Hall and your floppy sticker, will testify on your issue. They, with their official city seals hanging from their pockets and their $1,200 suits undamaged by the gummy backside of a VISITOR tag, also may testify. Or maybe they’ll just whisper directly into a council member’s ear. Try that with your red VISITOR tag. Which of you do you suppose is taken more seriously?

City Hall’s biggest secret is that you too can call your council member and get free parking and a plastic VISITOR tag. Of course, you’ll need a car. If you take the bus, forget it.

It would be one thing if these measures actually secured City Hall against violent attacks. But security is fundamentally lax. Last month, during an employee-only reception on the Spring Street side, the door that usually is locked against all but city employees was wide-open. I walked in unchallenged. Some weeks earlier, I remember stopping just inside a door “for emergency use only.” Open it, and you supposedly set off an alarm. I was passed swiftly by a city employee who opened the door, walked out and looked back at me with a smirk that said: “Sucker.”

No alarm. City workers go in and out there all the time.

Anyone who gets hold of a city-employee ID, or fakes one, or calls ahead and drives into the garage underneath, can cause havoc in City Hall if they want to. For that matter, the notorious City Hall murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were carried out by an ex–elected official, who knew how to get a gun into the building undetected. The killer of Brooklyn Councilman James Davis reportedly got around security because Davis himself let him in.

In Los Angeles, hundreds of insiders flash badges or smiles and slip into City Hall every day without passing through metal detectors. The average citizen, though, waits in line, presents a driver’s license, has it scanned and is marked as a “visitor.”

Terry Stone, of Van Nuys, had her fill several months ago when she came to testify on campaign-finance laws. Campaign consultants filled the corridors, sporting their plastic hang tags embossed with the city seal. Stone, meanwhile, after taking the Red Line to Civic Center and getting her license scanned, stood up with her now-smudged VISITOR sticker.

She was no visitor, she told the council, but a constituent. “This should say: ‘The Boss,’” Stone said, pointing to her peeling tag. A few council members offered up a sympathetic laugh.

On second thought, it might have been a snicker.


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