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September 13th, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Security Blanket

WW learns what many in City Hall didn't yet know: Armed guards promised by Mayor Tom Potter have arrived.

     
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Is that a gun in your pocket? Or are you here to see the mayor?
IMAGE: CAMERONBROWNE.COM
Last December, Portland Mayor Tom Potter promised to beef up security measures at City Hall and the Portland Building by adding armed guards beyond the one stationed in the mayor's suite.

Last week, Commissioner Randy Leonard said that in the nine months since, he's seen no evidence of the mayor's promised safety reforms.

"I haven't noticed anything different," he says.

And Potter spokesman John Doussard said that as far as he knew, the mayor's guard remained the only armed guard in the building.

But what these two City Hall insiders—and thus probably most of the public—didn't know is that with no fanfare, additional armed guards have been on the job since April, albeit with concealed weapons, according to Bureau of General Services spokeswoman Mary Volm. City Hall guards wouldn't comment, and Ben Blair, the head of Florida-based Wackenhut's local operations, which includes security at the two city buildings, said he couldn't discuss the extent to which the guards were packing heat.

"Those types of questions go straight to the security posture of the building," Blair says.

But Commissioner Erik Sten knew more armed guards were around and thought everyone else knew, too.

"I haven't felt unsafe in the building," he says. "But the mayor feels strongly about it, and I'm willing to give it a try. If it starts to feel like a fortress, that would give me some real pause."

The guards are just one part of a larger safety upgrade that's part of the heightened security public buildings have undergone in the five years after 9/11. The first change city visitors will notice will be more security personnel at the entrances starting Oct. 2, though an exact number has not been disclosed.

They're in place while the city awaits custom-made turnstiles, at which city employees will have to swipe their ID cards. Once that happens, the public will no longer be able to enter City Hall from Southwest 5th Avenue. Over at the Portland Building, employees and the public will share an entrance, but employees will use the turnstiles in the lobby while the public will march past the watchful but friendly eye of the armed guards.

"Those that aren't employees will get a second glance and maybe a short conversation," Volm says.

Leonard says he believed that Potter's promised security guards would be visibly armed.

"I thought that was part of the deterrent," he says. "We get some pretty frightening characters here that feel free to go anywhere in the building, and that hasn't changed."

Portland is spending $1.1 million annually on its security force, and the other upgrades ran $259,000, including the custom turnstiles. The city also bought metal-detecting wands it can use to screen visitors if there is an alert.

So why's the security upgrade taking so long?

First, the winning bidder on the guards, Portland-based First Response Inc., backed out in January. First Response business development director Derek Bliss says candidates for several security positions requiring city approval were continually rejected—without an explanation. He speculated that's because the candidates, who he described as well-qualified and experienced, weren't ex-Portland Police Bureau officers. City officials acknowledged a preference for former Portland officers but said there was no hard-and-fast rule. (The mayor's current armed officer, Gary Krane, is a former city cop.)

Wackenhut had the next best bid, and City Council approved a contract with it in February.

The design and bidding process for the hardware was more involved, and a contract wasn't signed until June 6. The city hasn't yet settled on a subcontractor who can deliver the turnstiles to specifications, but officials hope they'll be in place by the end of November.

So what does Potter think about upgrades taking so long? "Each month it drags on doesn't make him happy," Doussard says.

 
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