May 23, 2019

Courthouse officials mull security issues

ELLSWORTH — Security at the Hancock County Courthouse came into question this week as county commissioners tried to determine how secure the building is and how secure it should be.

Although the issue had been raised earlier this month during deliberations about assigning keys after the building is renovated, the discussion Tuesday couldn’t help being colored by the events in Colorado last week.

“I may be the only one thinking this way — and I certainly don’t want to give anyone any ideas — but what would preclude someone from coming into the building … with evil intentions who could leave a device under one of the benches in the hallway?” asked Commissioner Dennis Damon. “The answer is `nothing.’ There is nothing that would preclude it.”

Damon said he sees government buildings in general becoming targets and questioned whether the commissioners should act to limit access to the courthouse in a way that would deter someone intent on harming people in the building.

“We do make decisions in this building that affect people’s lives that they don’t always agree with,” Damon said.

He added that as new doors are installed in the courthouse in conjunction with the construction of the new jail, the commissioners have an opportunity to monitor who has access to the building.

“Do we want all the people who work here to have access to this building 24 hours a day, that is, should they all have a key to the front door?” Damon asked. “Should they have access to all the suites of offices in the building?”

He added: “There’s no one in this room right now who can say how many keys are out there for this building or who has them.”

Sheriff William Clark questioned whether a key policy will make the building more secure.

“This building was never built to be impenetrable,” Clark said. “You’re not going to restrict it even with a new key system. This building is as susceptible to that kind of danger as any other building in Hancock County. To try to do this kind of thing may be going overboard.”

The courthouse is open for business from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., but the doors usually are unlocked around 7 a.m. and remain unlocked after 4 p.m. Ron Stanley, the building’s maintenance supervisor, explained that often people from out of the area arrive early for court appearances and wait in the corridors for the courts to open. Also, local attorneys often use the law library before or after court sessions.

Nonetheless, some county employees who on occasion work early or late said they are sometimes unnerved knowing that there are other people in the building.

“Sometimes it’s scary after 4 p.m. knowing that people can wander through here,” said Marilyn Hanscomb, the county registrar of deeds.

County Treasurer Robert Lakin said he would feel more comfortable with tighter security after hours. He suggested that there be some secure area through which employees could enter the building.

“They don’t necessarily have to come through the front door,” he said. “They could enter the building through the sheriff’s department. I think we could avoid a lot of these issues if we had a secured area.”

Damon noted that some courthouses outside of Maine have strict controls on who enters the building. “In some counties there is no free and open access,” he said.

No decisions were made on a key policy. The commissioners will ask department heads to work with David Witham, the clerk of the works for the jail construction project, to identify which doors in their departments will need to be locked and which employees will need keys to those locks.

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