Sleepless in City Hall

Former Alachua County Manager Randy Reid typically ends his correspondence with “In Public Service.” Appropriate coming from a man who has spent his professional life working in city and county governments.

Reid recently sent me a document titled “What keeps local government managers up at night.” The product of a series of focus group discussions involving local government managers in Florida, the concerns expressed were pretty much what you might expect – state legislatures eating away at home rule authority, deteriorating infrastructure, eroding tax bases and the like.

Ironically, within hours of sending the document Reid – now a regional coordinator for the International City & County Management Association – was abruptly summoned to provide assistance to one local government, Virginia Beach, whose managers suddenly had ample cause to lose sleep.

Add to the list of things that keep managers up at night: Mass shootings.

“Virginia Beach is the classic nightmare for public managers in our current era of political divisiveness and recognized failure to be able to identify or track people with mental health or violent prone tendencies in our communities and workforces,” Reid told me in an email.

Reid had been attending a city and county manager conference in Orlando when the news broke about a disgruntled city worker who used an automatic pistol rigged with sound suppressor and extended ammunition capacity to murder 11 Virginia Beach employees and a local contractor. 

Most of the managers at the conference, he wrote, were thinking “this easily could have been my city or county.”

“We all have war stories of disgruntled employees who could have carried out threats or gone off their meds.”

Such is the occupational hazard of working for the branch of government that is, by definition and proximity, “closest to the people,” in the most heavily armed society in the history of human civilization. And unlike the well guarded buildings that shelter Congress and most state legislatures, city halls and county administration buildings tend to be easily accessible, and thus vulnerable. 

“Public buildings and meeting areas must remain open and accessible in a democracy,” Reid wrote, “so short of implementing TSA procedures, meetings in public facilities must balance security and ease of access and are likely places of future occasional tragedies.” 

Not surprisingly, this tends to foster a near state of siege mentality among those who work in local government buildings. 

“Most managers instinctively visually scan meetings for known troubled attendees, look for packages carried into meetings and scan empty parking lots if leaving the building late, and some on occasion if lawful carry firearms on persons and vehicles. Bailiff or police officers are now common place at meeting and have been for decades. Card entry to non public areas the norm,” Reid wrote.

Randy and I both regularly attend an informal gathering of current and former Gainesville and Alachua County elected officials, employees and community leaders. And quite often during our sessions, the increasingly hostile and uncivil tone of public comment at city and county meetings is a topic for discussion. 

In Virginia Beach, it was an angry employee who wielded the gun. But you don’t have to watch too many local city commission meetings to wonder about the prospect of angry rhetoric degenerating into something decidedly more deadly. 

When commissioners are routinely impugned as liars, fools and thieves how can they not worry about their own personal safety and that of their families? When city employees must sit mute as their professional reputations are impugned and their personal lifestyles condemned, how can they not wonder when ugly verbiage may take a lethal turn?

We live in an era of political polarization in which the popular rhetoric of the day more often makes government out to be the enemy than the servant of the people. Combine that with easy access to firearms – not to mention state and federal restrictions on the ability to the locals to control guns – and it is easy to understand why city halls and county administration buildings may become irresistible targets of opportunity for the spiteful, the vengeful and the deranged. 

Looking back on his own career in local government, Reid recalls “I have personally always had meeting room evacuation and emergency plans distributed to folks on the dais with procedures, as to code words, exit procedures and where to meet up for post event security.

“I and many  managers, like cops, learn not to set with backs toward the door in public places, take different routes when commuting if suspecting trouble or harassment,” Reid continued. “Personally in forty years I have been threatened several times, harassed while shopping for groceries and at civic events and physically assaulted once at restaurant when I did have my back turned to the door by the brother of a terminated employee requiring police response and arrest.”

“In Public Service” is a worthy salutation for legions of men and women who labor each day on behalf of their fellow city and county residents. That such public servants all too often become objects of public contempt – and, yes, even human targets – says something frightening about the fragile state of our democracy in an age of rage. 

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