Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has started a discussion that, quite frankly, is overdue.
It is a good and fair question. Most people in this community have an opinion and they will voice those opinions over the next several months as this thing plays out. Tomlinson has appointed a 23-person commission to deal with the issue and it will start meeting next month.
But there is one opinion, in my mind, that should carry additional weight. That is Maj. Mike Massey, the law enforcement officer who is responsible for securing the Government Center and the courts that operate inside it.
Massey is on the commission and I am certain his voice will be heard. And it should be because he knows, better than most, what can go wrong at the Government Center. It is his responsibility to have the plan to deal with worse-case scenarios.
“This building was not built with security in mind,” Massey said Friday. “It was built long before 9/11, and that is the measuring tool we use today when we talk about security.”
The building was built in 1969 and ’70 when government was open and inviting, and it was designed and constructed accordingly.
Times have changed dramatically, folks.
“There were no domestic terrorists, and foreign terrorists were not landing planes in our buildings,” Massey said.
It may have been less than a half a century ago, but security was not the focus. Today, security — for those who work and do business in the building — is the focus.
And it should be where the commission’s discussion starts. And the reason for that is obvious. At its core, the Government Center is a large glass courthouse. Most of the judicial activity for a county of about 200,000 people happen inside that downtown Columbus structure that opened in 1971.
There are seven Superior Courts inside that building. In the early years, there were two. Those Superior Court judges work the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, but they are all based here.
There are two State Courts, Muscogee County Probate Court, Municipal Court, Magistrate Court and three juvenile courts.
There are 14 judges holding court on the building’s 11 occupied floors and a basement. Those judges have access to nine courtrooms.
“Almost every day, there are child support hearings, custody hearings, divorce cases — this week we have had a murder case,” he said. “There are a lot of volatile things happening in this building every single day.”
There are about 500 employees in the building each day. The employees are attorneys have a special key card entrance into the building. Another 1,000 people a day pass through the main security point on the ground floor, Massey said.
On any given day, the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office transports 15 to 30 inmates from the jail to the Government Center. The Government Center was not built to handle the inmate load it does today. There are secure ways to get the inmates in and out of the Government Center, but the Russell County Judicial Center just across the river is more secure with its salleyport that allows inmates to be brought into a closed secure area before entering the courthouse.
In addition to the court activities, there are also city government offices in the Government Center. Massey looks at the general government duties and the court duties differently.
“What I hope that this commission sees is there is a need to separate the judicial operations from the general government operations,” Massey said. “You need more openness in a general government building than you need in a judicial building.”
There are many issues with this building. And this discussion could run off in any number of directions. There will be a lot of concern over cost, and there should be.
But at the end of the day, Maj. Massey is right about this one when he says security should be a primary focus.
And he’s the man who would know.