On a recent visit to New London City Hall on a weekday morning, I was surprised to find the front door locked. There is now an intercom in the vestibule to call the department you want to visit.
I was actually there to look at some files in Probate Court, and I used my cell phone to call the court clerk, who then had to come to the front door of the City Hall to let me in. It certainly seemed like a waste of time.
So what’s the deal with closing a public building and restricting public access on a normal weekday?
That’s what I asked Mayor Michael Passero in an email.
Maybe this is a new trend that has escaped me, I thought to myself. But no, after checking around, I couldn’t find any other municipal buildings in the region or state that are closed to prevent the public from venturing inside.
In fact, the New London finance office across Masonic Street from City Hall is open as ever and the public can enter directly. Of course, the US post office next door is open and welcoming.
Mayor Passero told me in an email that the new system was put in place about 18 months ago, during the COVID-19 restrictions and for the start of a City Hall construction project.
With COVID-19 rules loosening and construction nearly complete, the mayor wrote, employees were consulted and agreed to keep the closed doors policy in place.
“The overwhelming consensus was that the system provided a minimum level of security for their workplace that they found reassuring these days,” the mayor wrote. “They also felt it worked well in helping to refer people to the service they were looking for.
“City hall staff felt that, in the past, very often people wandered around the building, frustrated, trying to find the office and service they needed and were often in the wrong building too,” he wrote.
Other crowded town halls have guards or greetings at the front door, but that’s not possible in New London due to the cost, the mayor added. He also noticed that the system is disabled when a major event is expected in the building.
I have been in and out of town hall for about 40 years and have never seen anyone walking around lost. It’s not really that big. There are many signs. And whoever you see would be happy to point you in the right direction.
If there have been any incidents or threats that make safety concerns a concern for employees, the city should pay what it costs to have a supervisor or guard at the front door. An intercom and a locked glass door that someone comes to open are certainly not safe.
An unattended and locked front door of a public building sends a terrible message. What if someone just wants to walk around and admire the historic building, which has just been renovated at a high taxpayer cost?
Not only is the State Street front door to City Hall locked, but the rear entrance, on Masonic Street, is completely closed to the public, with a sign saying it’s for the exclusive use of employees.
I often see the same Jaguar parked for hours on Masonic Street, in the spaces in front of the post office marked for a 30 minute limit. I assume, since there’s never a ticket on it, this is a city clerk’s car, parked conveniently in front of the new employee-only door on that side of the city hall. The postmen have their own parking.
Even a private company, unsupported by taxes, could not get that level of street parking privilege.
Locking up a public building when it should be open to the public, who owns and supports it, seems to me bad public policy.
I hope the mayor will consider canceling employees who, according to him, have asked for it. Get the public into their building without asking for permission.
This is David Collins’ opinion.