Even the harshest critic of city government would have to admit that Toronto City Hall is a remarkably open place.
Anyone can walk across Nathan Phillips Square and step through the big teak-faced doors into the lobby of Viljo Revell's architectural wonder. Hundreds do it every day: city workers and city councillors; homeowners applying for building or parking permits; restaurant owners applying for liquor licences; groups of visiting tourists; smartly dressed brides and grooms on their way to the City Hall wedding chambers.
In fearful times, that is an amazing thing. It would a terrible shame to see it change. Yet that is what could happen if the security experts get their way. A report that came before city council's executive committee on Tuesday proposed to tighten security at City Hall, adding metal detectors, bag checks and protective screens in the council chamber and some meeting rooms.
The report notes that authorities raised the domestic terrorism threat level from low to medium in October, 2014. In response, City Hall took steps that included putting extra security guards at its entrances. City officials argue that because the threat level is not likely to diminish any time soon, there "is a need to consider security enhancements as more permanent in nature." The cost: half a million dollars off the top, and another three-quarters of a million a year after that.
City halls in most big U.S. cities already have metal detectors and security checks, the report notes. Many provincial legislatures here in Canada have checks, too. Calgary has had "patron screening" at its city council chamber since 2015, and Edmonton just introduced it.
In other words, everyone else is doing it, why shouldn't we? That seems a thin argument for shutting the doors of Toronto's main democratic forum – home not just of city council and the mayor's office, but of a daycare centre and a busy public library.
City Hall, fortunately, has not suffered any sort of attack that would justify tougher security. If there have been verified threats that would justify it, we don't know about them. Officials shrouded some of their submissions to city council under a veil of confidentiality.
Tim Maguire, head of a city workers union, CUPE Local 79, said the union has not heard any members complain that they feel in danger. He told the executive committee that municipal government stands out for its openness and that councillors should pause before doing anything that might limit access to City Hall.
Fortunately, they voted to do just that: take a pause. The executive decided to approve one idea – putting vehicle barriers around Nathan Phillips Square to prevent a vehicle attack like the recent one in New York – but sent the rest back for further study and public consultation.
One councillor, Cesar Palacio, called City Hall "a special place, a welcoming place." Another, Janet Davis, called it "the place where the people are heard." Yet another, Gord Perks, said that even though people have threatened him in the past, councillors can't respond "by walling ourselves off and walling the public out of this space." The path ahead, he argued, "is not to build a fortress here."
He is quite right about that. With terrorist attacks in the headlines, governments obviously have to consider measures to keep people safe and protect potential targets. But they must also take care not to overreact and raise barriers to places at the heart of our democratic life.
Yes, letting people walk straight into City Hall could leave it more vulnerable to attack. But people walk straight into all sorts of places that could be targets: big downtown office buildings, train stations, subway stations. We can't screen everyone, everywhere. We have to assess the risks. How great is the danger, really? How harmful and how costly would the countermeasures be? Ask the security experts and they will always say: This place is not safe unless you do X, Y and Z. It is the job of elected officials to ask whether those measures are truly justified.
The open doors at City Hall are one of those little things that make people feel they live in a free country. It is a way of saying to those who enter: This is your place, it belongs to you, come on in.
Long may the doors stay open.