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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Before locking down city hall, politicians need to think about who they’re locking out

Shutting people out of city hall isn't the right way to go, Matt Elliott writes.

A new report calls for the &quotscreening" of visitors and other enhanced security measures at Toronto City Hall.

Benjamin Priebe / Metroland

A new report calls for the "screening" of visitors and other enhanced security measures at Toronto City Hall.

Here’s how I became a journalist covering Toronto city hall: I walked in.

That’s all. There was no accreditation. There was no security screening. I needed no one’s permission. I joined no organizations and paid no fee. I was a Toronto resident who was concerned about the things happening in my city, and so I went to city hall and wrote about it on a blog I threw together. The building was open to me.

Seven years later, I’m still writing.

It’s because of my origin story that I was so disappointed to see a report on Mayor John Tory’s executive committee agenda for Tuesday recommending “enhanced security measures” at city hall.

The report suggests adding “patron screening,” otherwise known as metal detectors, plus the installation of physical barriers in the council chamber and committee meeting rooms, along with other measures designed to step-up security.

I’d tell you more about what’s planned, but I can’t. The details are contained in four confidential attachments to the report. Absurdly, the public isn’t allowed to access information about the security measures planned for a public building.

I can tell you this: the security plan would cost $774,000 a year, plus another $500,000 in installation costs.

And for what? The current security arrangement – there are security guards throughout the building and bags are checked when going into council meetings – has never left me feeling unsafe.

The worst that happens under the current security regime is that groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty are able to disrupt meetings with banners and chants. But really, it’s probably a good thing that politicians are periodically reminded that poverty exists and people are against it.

On the flipside, the benefits of city hall’s openness are many. Just compare municipal coverage to provincial coverage. At the Queen’s Park legislature, access is severely locked down. Want to cover meetings as someone not employed by a major media outlet? Be prepared to fight for access.

At city hall, things are different. More open. Welcoming.

It’s led to a lot of good and important coverage. During the tumultuous Mayor Rob Ford administration, independent work flourished. Young journalists with no formal association to major media flocked to 100 Queen St. to report and to analyze and to fact check the hell out of everything.

The beat was open to everyone, including a lot of people who don’t look like me and don’t look like the people who make up the majority of newsrooms in this city.

They were able to provide that coverage in part because there was no one standing at the door in a position to tell them they’re not allowed to enter.

I am not writing off the notion of any and all security enhancements entirely. The confidential documents headed to Tory’s committee may in fact contain some simple and unobtrusive changes to building security.

But make no mistake: any change to the rules governing access could put city hall’s best and most important feature at risk. Security is no doubt a priority in any public building, but so is openness. If Tory and Toronto City Council do move to lock down city hall, they need to think first about who they will end up locking out.

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