TARPON SPRINGS – The issue of security versus accessibility at public facilities, namely Tarpon Springs City Hall, led to a lengthy discussion between officials and residents during the May 28 Board of Commissioners meeting.
Commissioner Connor Donovan requested the item be added to the agenda. He wanted to discuss how to make the city “more accessible and welcoming to our residents” after suffering poor experiences as a City Hall visitor before becoming a commissioner in March.
Donovan’s issue has to do with the entryway at the former high school, and later junior high school, building. The narrow hallway is flanked by closed rooms on each side that features a security guard and two locked doors behind him.
“What I would like to see is the two shut doors that you need to be buzzed through to be opened up,” Donovan said. He said he called all 24 municipal governments in Pinellas County, he found only two—Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg — feature a security guard at the entrance to the main building, though he doesn’t believe the guard should be removed, just moved.
“I support the staffing of a security guard, as long as he is moved to the side or put on patrol,” he said.
Donovan’s idea was met with resistance from Police Chief Robert Kochen, Major Michael Trill of the Police Department and his fellow commissioners.
“I would feel very uncomfortable if I would take your suggestion to do this, just because of some of the threats that we get,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said. Alahouzos, Kochen and Trill all told stories about disgruntled visitors and residents who have made threatening calls and sent harassing emails and letters to staff.
While Kochen conceded the entryway is “not perfect,” he added, “the purpose of those doors is delay. God forbid an active shooter visited City Hall, the statistics show you that they last about five minutes, and every 15 seconds, someone is getting killed. The more you can delay them, the more you can prevent them from getting in City Hall, more people survive. It’s really that simple.”
Donovan wasn’t alone in calling for a change; during the public comments, several residents stepped to the podium to denounce the City Hall visitor experience.
“Honestly, chief, it’s not a good balance,” Mike Kouskoutis, a local attorney, said to Kochen. “This is a perception you have out in the community.”
Kouskoutis continued: “I’m concerned with the way the city has decided to isolate itself from its residents. We talk about making Tarpon Springs a more inviting community, and it’s so contrasting when you walk into City Hall….I recognize there’s a safety issue, but you can’t lock yourself in.”
Former City Manager Costa Vatikiotis agreed.
“Mr. Kouskoutis is right,” Vatikiotis, an announced 2020 City Commission candidate, said. “When you walk in those entry doors, you leave Tarpon Springs.”
Noting he fully understood the building’s limitations and security considerations, Vatikiotis said, “I think we can do a much better job with what we’ve got.”
Three days after the meeting, a veteran city engineer killed 12 people, including 11 city employees and a local contractor, at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The slayings thrust the issue of safety at public facilities into the national spotlight once again.
When contacted to see if his position had changed in light of the Virginia Beach incident, Donovan reiterated his issue wasn’t with the security, but accessibility, at City Hall.
“It’s easy to say this is about safety versus security, but it’s not,” Donovan said by phone, noting he didn’t want to make the “terrible tragedy” in Virginia Beach “an issue to strengthen or weaken” his argument. “I don’t think it’s a security issue, it’s an accessibility issue and about respecting our taxpayers. Anytime you’re 2 of 24 on something you need to ask why, is it for better or worse?”
When asked what he hoped the next step would be, Donovan said: “We need to meet with city staff to make it open and a more welcoming City Hall experience and understand the taxpayers keep the lights on. We need to make sure City Hall is a better experience for our residents and visitors.”
Alahouzos said the Virginia Beach tragedy is another example of why safety must always be their first priority.
“The incident was very unfortunate, and I feel bad for all the people affected, but it reaffirmed what I said at the meeting—I cannot support doing anything that jeopardizes the safety of City Hall employees and visitors,” he said. “And the concern of Chief Kochen and Major Trill was very clear, what can happen and why you have to have those doors and why they have to remain closed.”
When asked if he supported some of Donovan’s suggestions, such as moving the guard inside and unlocking the inside doors, Alahouzos said: “I’m not an expert on security. Chief Kochen and Major Trill are experts on security, and I’m going to support whatever they recommend because safety has got to be the number one priority. I’d rather have a little bit of inconvenience to be safe. Safety always comes first.”