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Starting Tuesday, a metal detector will greet visitors to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chambers, part of a new, broader security policy intended to boost safety during public meetings.

County employees and members of the public attending Board of Supervisors meetings will be required to pass through the metal detector and hand over their bags and backpacks for inspection. Guns, knives and flammable substances are prohibited.

The board chambers will open about 30 minutes prior to meetings, allowing time for the screening process.

Supervisors signed off on the screening protocol on Dec. 4. It’ll cost about $50,000 a year to hire a firm to conduct the security screenings.

The move will provide another security layer, in addition to the deputies already stationed at the chambers, which cost the county $36,842 last fiscal year. Other bodies that meet in the chambers can choose to utilize the metal detector, a spokeswoman said.

The new policy was proposed in July as the county looked to upgrade security after completing a risk assessment and putting into motion measures, such as installing more lighting on campus, County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said. The assessment followed a 2016 incident in which a homeless man broke into the county counsel’s office, a spokeswoman said.

“We feel it’s appropriate to err on the side of being overly cautious,” Bratton said. “It’s hard to enunciate the risk, but given what’s going on in the nation with active shooters, it’s a modest improvement.”

Bratton said she’s not aware of any weapons being displayed at prior board meetings. She described the measures as in keeping with those at state and federal buildings, along with a growing number of counties. The courthouse is the only other county building with metal detectors, she said.

The issue proved divisive for elected officials, but the purchase and installation of the $69,961 metal detector was ultimately approved on a 3-2 vote in August, with supervisors David Rabbitt and Susan Gorin dissenting.

Supervisor James Gore, the board’s chairman, referenced constituents’ threats to elected officials during the safety discussion. Gore said it’s a reality of holding public office, and on two occasions he’s worked with the county’s risk assessment team over troubling threats. He said he hears as many as 50 times a year from members of the public expressing discomfort over behavior of others in the audience at board meetings.

“There are a lot of intense, passionate people who come (to the chambers) from all different backgrounds,” he said. “This is less about my protection, because I have a Kevlar desk in front of me. It’s more about protecting that place for people, and the people that write me after board meetings to say ‘that was unsettling’ about the public comment or other things.”

Rabbitt said he received death threats and had law enforcement posted at his home while board chairman in the aftermath of the 2013 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a deputy. But, he said, the measures “send the wrong message to the community.”

While he said he wants to ensure “everyone feels as safe as possible,” he pointed to the existing law enforcement presence at meetings.

“This is the public’s space to come and address their local government,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s as open and inviting as possible. It probably won’t detract (from participation), but I don’t think it sends a good message. I’m sure people will be annoyed.”

Elected officials can choose to report threats to the assistant county administrator, Bratton said. If necessary, a threat assessment team then looks into the incident and recommends action, which could include involving law enforcement.

The county did not have available the number of threats made against elected officials that they investigated.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she, too, has been subjected to serious threats related to decisions she made while in office. Additional security will help ensure the board chambers is safe for elected officials, county employees and the public, she said.

“It will invite more people to come to the meetings,” Zane said. “More people will feel safe.”

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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