Attendees at Bluffton’s town council meetings in the Theodore D. Washington Municipal Building on Bridge Street will find a change from previous years when they come in the front doors.
New security measures began Jan. 13 with the first meeting of the year. Using a security wand, Bluffton police officers will check each person – from the youngest visiting student to the oldest Blufftonian – before he or she may enter Ulmer Auditorium.
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka strongly supports the new security measures. “Residents as well as town employees have been very receptive to the recent security measures implemented at town hall,” she said. “People have told us they feel at ease and secure knowing our Bluffton police officers are near and have checked each person who shares the same public space as they do.”
The implementation is the result of updating town policies and procedures following discussions between the Bluffton Police Department, council and town hall officials.
“We have an obligation to provide a safe and secure place for the public,” said Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds. “We aren’t here to impose on anyone’s privacy; we just want to protect them.”
The new measures do not require new equipment nor additional personnel.
“These measures won’t cost any additional funding,” said Reynolds. “We have an officer who conducts these safety measures at court on Tuesday. Her hours will be adjusted to also be there on Tuesday nights for council. There is another officer at council meetings as well, who can check bags if necessary.”
Officer Bethany Hopkins uses a security wand, a type of hand-held metal detector, and passes it over the back and front of each guest to look for weapons in pockets, purses and bags. Visitors can place their belongings on the table at the door near the auditorium while she uses the wand.
Hopkins or another officer will examine the contents of the bags and, if cleared, then guests may enter council chambers.
The police chief said feedback on the new procedures has been positive. But some folks aren’t so happy about the new measures.
“I don’t think much of it, but that’s what they want to do,” said longtime Bluffton resident Jacob Martin, who is a regular at council meetings. “Everybody’s running scared these days, but if that’s what they want to do, then that’s fine.”
Others don’t think about it one way or the other.
“The very first time it happened, I thought ‘man, we’ve come a long way.’ I can see it for the day time when there’s court,” said Paige Camp, another longtime Bluffton resident. “But I don’t have any feeling one way or the other.”
The security checks are currently in place only for court sessions and town council meetings and have not been extended to include community meetings involving town officials held elsewhere.
“That may change in the future,” said Reynolds, “but for right now we will just do the checks and use the wand at town hall.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.