Back in February, a city council meeting in Kirkwood, Missouri, resulted in five people being slain by a disgruntled citizen. It is rare that a tragedy of that scope happens. In many small town political meetings, people get heated, upset and sometimes arrested. For things to go beyond that are so rare that precautions are infeasible, at least if a transparent form of government is going to exist.
Hundreds of miles away in Milan, Michigan, the mayor and police chief decided that something needs to be done to protect public officials. Upon the mayor’s order, a barricade was placed in front of where the city council sits. It isn’t much of a barricade as barricades go, just metal poles with a band connecting them and a sign that reads “Notice, Authorized Personnel Only.”
Large cities, state legislatures and Congress have reason to be concerned about their security. When it gets down to the size of a town like Milan, there are some real questions about the approachability of elected officials. Milan has fewer than 6,000 people. Yet Mayor Kym Muckler is adamant that the barrier should stay for “psychological” reasons.
Mayor Pro-Tem Michael Armitage was the first to raise questions about the barrier.
“When I came into council chambers, I was not real happy to see the barricade,” Armitage said.
Muckler immediately responded, “It’s not a barricade. That’s a little strong.”
That’s the problem. It is not a barricade. It doesn’t offer real protection, except to intimidate the public. As another councilman said it “creates a visual blockade between us and the citizens.”
While Muckler argued that the barrier forced the public to pass things to the clerk instead of directly to the councilmembers, she neglected to mention that a sign would do the same. Muckler asserted that since public officials in other parts of the country have been “shot point blank” then order needs to be maintained in the meetings.
“There have been times in the past when I have been sitting up here, where I’ve had angry people that charged toward me,” Muckler said.
Not everyone on the council agreed that things were as dramatic as that. If the purpose is to avert an assault on the council, it is a laughable solution. What is not laughable is the slippery slope that all public meeting are heading. It is not unimaginable to envision having public meetings were the elected officials are walled off from the public. It may even get to the point of meetings being held by telecast.
People are going to get upset over controversial matters before elected bodies. As Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” If the mayor of a small town is afraid people are going to charge her, then perhaps the problem is not so much with the public but with elected officials who need to understand that anger, threats and fear have been around in politics since before the United States was founded. Alexander Hamilton was slain in a duel over politics, Senator Charles Sumner was caned on the Senate floor, and those are but two of the most famous examples. Accessibility is the foundation of American politics, especially at the local level, but there are disturbing trends that is going away.