AUGUSTA, Maine — At a hurriedly called meeting of legislative leaders on Wednesday, legislative staff was ordered to review State House security procedures and report back as early as next week on what has been done, what can be done and what other states are doing.
“We have been asked by the presiding officers to review State House security, as they are doing in many other states,” said Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, the Senate majority leader. “Sorry we called this meeting on such short notice.”
Courtney is chairman of the facilities committee of the Legislative Council, which is composed of 10 elected legislative leaders. Five members serve on the committee.
The committee directed David Boulter, executive director of the council to work with Capitol Police and other public safety agencies to review a 2006 report on State House security, update it and report on what other states are considering in the wake of the shooting in Arizona that killed six, including a federal judge, and seri-ously wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona.
Courtney and other members of the committee expressed concern about balancing increased security with the traditional openness of the State House, repeatedly calling it the “people’s building” during the meeting.
“We’re saying we need to heighten the security in the people’s building,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the assistant Senate minority leader. “There is a little tension in my mind as to how we navigate through that.”
Courtney agreed but said the responsibility is not only to provide easy access by the public, but the safety of those that visit and work in the building.
“I would hate to have someone say we had a report that went back to 2006 but something horrible happened because we didn’t act,” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, the assistant Senate majority leader.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he decided to ask for the review because of the attacks last weekend and his discussions with legislative staff.
“Quite frankly, I think it would be irresponsible to not take a good hard look at the security measures that we employ at the State House,” he said. “People that come into this building have a right to expect that they are safe.”
Raye said he wants to see what the facilities committee comes up with after they have reviewed past studies of security. House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, agreed.
“We have to have a balance between accessibility and safety,” he said. “Every time we have an incident like what happened in Arizona, we need to reassess what we are doing.”
Nutting said he was surprised to discover the Legislature already has the equipment to set up screening at the State House public entrance. The X-ray screening machine and metal detection devices were acquired through a federal grant, but have been deployed only a few times at special events.
The 2006 study indicated additional staff likely would be needed to make sure screening could be conducted whenever the State House is open to the public. When the Legislature meets, the building is open, even if the House and Senate sessions or committee meetings extend late into the night.
The debate over State House security started in earnest in 2002, just months after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Gov. Angus King ordered a security review that was conducted by state police and members of the National Guard, and implemented some of the recommendations of that group such as sur-veillance cameras in some areas.
But the same concerns were raised about access to the “people’s building” because that report recommended screening of all visitors to the State House. Then-Speaker Mike Saxl, a Portland Democrat, said he would not support security that “would unduly limit public access to the Legislature” and then-Rep. Charles LaVerdiere, D-Wilton agreed. He was co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee and now is a District Court judge.
“We should not overreact,” he said at the time. “The terrorists will win if the fundamental rights of a democracy are curtailed.”
Boulter was asked to ready a report as soon as possible, and Courtney said the facilities committee might meet as early as next week to review his findings.