Palm Coast City Hall has added armed security and may soon have a metal detector at the entrance to its Community Wing, where City Council meetings and workshops are held.
One councilman calls it a “very bad” development that sends the wrong message to the public at large. A January 19 incident involving a man who refused to wear a mask and allegedly confronted city employees over several minutes, along with a series of occasionally tense meetings in recent months and a relatively wide-open City Hall to date have prompted the changes, which mirror changes in other government buildings in the region.
The changes, currently on a 90-day trial period, remain significantly more lax than when Palm Coast City Hall operated in what approximated lockdown for many of its offices when it rented space at City Marketplace for many years: There, the public had no access to most offices without a magnetized key card to operate elevators, and without an employee escort, though public meetings and high-traffic public offices on the first floor were freely accessible.
“I’m being proactive, and unfortunately that time is here, it may not even be a resident, it may not be a citizen, it may be someone passing through. But I do have valid security concerns,” City Manager Matt Morton told council members this morning. “I think we’re taking appropriate steps at this point.”
Palm Coast is not an outlier. Beefier security measures are beginning to crop up in local government buildings in step with a perceived rise in public tempers and increasing anxieties about the safety of employees or visitors to public buildings. The Government Services Building in Bunnell, which combines county government, school board and constitutional officers’ operations, has had its own private security for several years. Starting in July 2019, anyone attending a Deltona City Commission meeting or workshop had to walk through a $3,200 metal detector first. The measure was prompted by a meeting a month earlier when individuals addressing the commission devolved into insults against commissioners and other members of the public. Ocala city government added an armed guard and metal detector at City Hall in 2017. Most courthouses, including in Bunnell, have metal detectors.
Nevertheless, while there are occasional reports of violent acts at local government buildings, the more common crime has trended toward cyber attacks on government’s IT structures, seeking ransom by locking down computer networks. There were at least seven such attacks on Florida municipalities between 2018 and 2019. Last Friday a city’s utility in Pinellas County was attacked by hackers who sought to poison the water system.
Palm Coast City Council member Eddie Branquinho said he recently got a call from a resident asking him “why do we need security at the door of City Hall. I couldn’t answer the question,” he said.
“We’ve got a few specific reasons,” Morton said. “One is just the national, political landscape and the climate unfortunately has impacts across the country. We’ve had a few incidents in city hall that seem to have been escalating over the last year, I would call them confrontations. Traditionally we’ve asked staff to de-escalate those confrontations. They’ve gotten to the point where it’s inappropriate for staff to be put in that position of de-escalating. We have many ex-law enforcement officers here who are generally more than happy to assist, but that’s not an appropriate role for them to be undertaking. We didn’t have an immediate safety or response plan. When the [Flagler County Sheriff’s Office] deputy is here on site, we have a phenomenal resource, we have a phenomenal resource all the time, but they’re not always here on site, and when they are, their job is not to be a hall monitor. In essence, to ensure safety–not just of our employees, but safety of all of our residents frankly deserve. So we just came through a situational moment two council meetings ago where we had a very bad situation unfold at City Hall.”
A city report and surveillance video obtained by FlaglerLive narrate the Jan. 19 incident Morton was referring to. It took place in the minutes before a morning council meeting. (See all the video footage from different angles below.)
At 8:51 a.m. that day, a late middle-aged man wearing sneakers, jeans, a cap and a t-shirt with the words DON’T TREAD ON ME emblazoned on its front walked through the main entrance to the city administration offices. The wording was ironic. As the city sees it and as videos depict him and his demeanor, he would soon be the one treading on others and their safety by ignoring a city ordinance requiring all those inside the building to wear a mask. (Upholding Palm Beach County’s mask mandate, an appeals court last month said the requirement is not an infringement on personal freedoms any more than prohibitions on indoor smoking are an infringement, but rather, in both cases, a protective measure for others.)
The man has not been identified.
According to the city’s report, a customer-service representative at the building’s entrance asked the man to put on a mask. The man refused, got angry and said he was not putting on a mask because he owned the building. He then “told our customer service representative that if he put on a mask, then he wanted her to pull down her pants and bare her ‘ass,’” the report states. Throughout, the customer service representative is alone behind her open-bay desk, though the man is standing at a respectful distance before he turns and walks further into the building, looks around, says he has rights and owns the building, and takes a drink. Meanwhile the customer service representative asked her supervisor to come out. “She also stated she was feeling nervous and scared,” the report states.
The supervisor asks him to put on a mask, only for the man to seek to go to administrative offices upstairs. He walks through the hall again, ignoring the supervisor. Code Enforcement’s Luiz Mendez, another supervisor, appears and addresses the man directly as the two supervisors subtly place themselves in his way so he cannot again walk through the hall. Two other people are in the hallway: the man’s temper has clearly drawn attention. “The male became verbally confrontational,” the city’s report states, closely paralleling the (soundless) surveillance footage. “Due to the aggressive nature of the male, the Code Enforcement Supervisor asked customer service to contact the Sheriff’s Office. The CE Supervisor Mendez continued to speak with the male as he walked toward the front entrance and watched the male exit the main entrance and proceed down to the Community Wing entrance.”
At 8:54 the man seeks entrance to the council chamber, where an employee stretches her hand to halt him. The man’s confrontation with Mendez seems to have escalated, drawing out two sheriff’s deputies, including Chief Williams. After Williams is seen gesturing about face masks and rules for two minutes, the man leaves.
“That was the final move that made us do that,” Morton said this morning, “because we’ve had several very similar incidents with folks coming in that were highly confrontational, highly unstable once asked to either quiet down or leave, and again we keep putting employees in that position. Now, if I’m going to put someone in a position to deal with someone who is highly confrontational, who is unwilling to listen, who wants to be extraordinarily agitated, who wants to make bodily threats and verbal threats, I have to have that appropriate level of response. Unfortunately an unarmed security guard is not that appropriate level of–hopefully we don’t get there ever–response.”
The unidentified man in the Jan. 19 incident would have likely faced arrest had he persisted–not for failing to wear a mask, but for trespassing after a warning. A couple was arrested in just such circumstances after refusing to wear masks, and delaying a Flagler Beach City Commission meeting for 12 minutes, late last month.
Morton said the city had been in discussions about an overall security plan, with the likely addition of security cameras, and now the addition of armed security during business hours. The administration also added a notice at the entrance, similar to one at the entrance of the GSB in Bunnell, prohibiting weapons of any kind in the building. Most of those measures, including the addition of a security guard and a metal detector, are largely under the manager’s authority, not the council’s, though the council could obviously take the extraordinary step of refusing to approve payments for them. It’s not expected to do so, as that would not only undermine the manager’s authority but also undermine security at a time when assaults on public buildings are no longer the stuff of fiction.
“No one, no one, whether it’s an employee or resident, should have to come to their community building and worry about their safety,” Morton said. Unfortunately it’s a visual reminder of that, having our own security guard in city hall. But I’m going to propose we’re on a 90-day trial as we evaluate a security review to bring forward to council. But I would anticipate me requesting that that become a permanent fixture moving forward.”
That did not quite satisfy Branquinho, a former police officer in Newark, N.J., though he spoke as of two minds–conceding that an unsafe “ambiance” was unacceptable even as he seemed to criticize additional safety measures, though it wasn’t clear how those measures made the city “look bad.”
“That’s one of the reasons why I moved to Palm Coast, because where I came from, that was needed, especially after 9/11, with terrorism,” Branquinho said. “Now, If we’re going to feel terrorized by whoever, some kind of wacko or wackos out there, come over here, that’s bad for us. That’s bad for the city. Because people come in here, say, wait a minute, why do I need security to go in City Hall. That’s pretty bad. That’s making us look bad. I don’t know how to solve it to be honest with you, because there’s all kinds of people out there, OK? And I think if anybody–if anybody creates that ambiance around here for us to feel unsafe, and if they either trespass or violate or, as you said, problems with our employees, we should proceed with charges. We have to charge these people. We have to. There’s no two ways around it. We have to charge these people. We need to be here and feel safe. Right now, ask me if I feel safe. I do, and it’s because of them two over there. That’s the reason I feel safe, because coming here and seeing those ‘Do not carry weapons inside,’ that’s bad. That’s the lowest point. It’s bad. Pretty bad. And I don’t care who’s terrorist or wacko out there doing any type of things. We’ve got to curb them.”
Mayor Milissa Holland, who’s had her share of security concerns prompted by aggrieved individuals, is supportive of the manager’s move, which did not get any other pushback from council members. “I just want to commend Matt Morton for taking the initiative on this and getting ahead of it,” Council member Ed Danko said.
Surveillance footage in the main hallway of City Hall and in the Community Wing, outside the council chambers, before the January 19 meeting: