Security added during recent Nanaimo council meetings

NANAIMO – Management at the conference centre decide when security is needed to protect public at city meetings. The City of Nanaimo pays.

Vancouver Island Conference Centre bills taxpayers to ramp up security at Nanaimo city council meetings when management anticipates hot-button issues and big crowds will put public safety at risk.

Security has been hired to oversee Nanaimo city council meetings up to 10 times in the last year when conference centre staff feared contentious issues could get out of hand, including a meeting last Monday. The extra measures are paid for by the City of Nanaimo.

Security at city council meetings isn’t practiced in all B.C. communities, but Nanaimo city staff members say this municipality is a unique case as a tenant of the conference centre. The centre’s staff consults with city officials and the RCMP about upcoming agendas and the potential for crowds to turn hostile over contentious issues. Ultimately it is up to conference centre management to make the judgement call about the amount of security the city needs at its meetings, staff said.

Recent measures were reportedly not communicated with top city officials, who initially told the News Bulletin they were unaware why security was monitoring a city meeting. Conference centre general manager Denise Tacon said the guards were a necessary precaution because of unresolved issues at city hall.

“[By the] next council meeting, I will talk to the city and RCMP and they will say maybe this isn’t needed going forward,” she said. “It certainly isn’t something that happens to all city council meetings by any means.”

Nanaimo’s downtown conference centre reports it has charged the city around $750 so far this year for additional security. According to Tacon, the centre is responsible to ensure its building and guests are protected and evaluates all events for potential issues. If increased security is needed, clients are given the bill.

Tacon said she believes it is better to be safe than sorry, including at city council meetings. Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot in 2011 only confirmed for her how quickly emotion in large crowds can become a public-safety issue. People can get very emotional about community issues in city meetings and an enforcement presence helps ensure people feel safe no matter which side of the debate they are on, she said.

“Part of [my mandate] is to understand and recognize when there are contentious issues and hostility around a subject … there can be emotion that changes the dynamic and therefore would need to have enforcement to ensure all individuals are in a safe and harmonious environment,” she said, adding some meetings have been “way too hostile.”

Other municipalities have varied approaches to security.

The City of Victoria has an extra commissionaire that stands at the doors of city hall meetings, while other  communities like Kelowna, Kamloops and Courtenay bypass security personnel all together.

Rob Mayne, Kelowna’s director of corporate services, said they pride their residents in acting professionally in council chambers even during emotional issues.

There has never been a circumstance where they needed security or the RCMP to monitor meetings.

Ian Howat, the city’s acting general manager, said he is baffled about what the big deal is around security at city meetings.

“Everyone automatically jumps to the conclusion that [security] is for council, but it’s not,” Howat said. “It’s for the public and to protect the public’s interest.”