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L.A. City Hall is reopening after two years. But security will be tighter

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For nearly 26 months, tourists, residents and other visitors have regularly approached the doors of Los Angeles City Hall, only to be waved off by police officers at the building’s Main Street entrance.

On Wednesday, the building will finally reopen to the public. But security will be more restrictive than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Visitors will no longer be permitted to simply walk into council members’ offices and ask for a staffer, but will instead need to call in advance — by scheduling a visit or having a security officer on the building’s fourth floor serve as an intermediary. Members of the public also will no longer be permitted to travel into City Hall on the overhead bridge from City Hall East.

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Employees of city departments, along with members of the news media, will be barred from standing around the “horseshoe” where City Council members deliberate during meetings. And in the coming weeks, members of the news media will need to apply for City Hall press passes, which will be reviewed and issued by the City Clerk, to gain access to certain parts of the building.

Asked about some of the security changes, an aide to City Council President Nury Martinez said “the world is very different” since the building shut down two years ago.

“Look around at the level of threats happening to elected officials at every level of government throughout the country,” said Martinez spokeswoman Sophie Gilchrist. “Do we need a catastrophe to occur before we secure the chambers and City Hall?”

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Much has happened since March 2020, when COVID-19 prompted city leaders to shut City Hall and scores of other municipal buildings. The city erupted in protest following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

Supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, ransacking offices while lawmakers huddled inside the House chamber.

Closer to home, activists upset with L.A.’s handling of homelessness, public safety and other issues have been demonstrating outside the homes of elected city officials, honking their horns in the morning or shouting from megaphones at night. In recent weeks, protesters have disrupted several candidate forums, shutting one of them down completely.

Councilman John Lee, who represents the northwest San Fernando Valley, said visitors will be able to reach his office as long as they schedule their visit in advance.

“As long as it’s appointment based, everyone can have access to the office,” he said. “They just need to call ahead.”

Councilwoman Nithya Raman said she viewed the new fourth floor security measures as a way to limit the spread of the virus. “It’s really about COVID risk,” she said. “That’s how we’ve been approaching it.”

Katherine Tattersfield, who lives in Lee’s district, was far more skeptical, saying she believes the security changes are meant to further limit Angelenos’ access to their representatives.

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An organizer with the West Valley People’s Alliance, Tattersfield has walked up on Lee repeatedly at community events, recording video as she pressed him to explain his role in the FBI probe of former Councilman Mitchell Englander, Lee’s onetime boss. Englander was sentenced to 14 months in prison, and Lee has declined to say whether he was the unnamed council aide referenced in certain federal filings.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that the City Council members are not happy with the direct actions that have taken place, with activists holding them accountable,” said Tattersfield, whose group is devoted to fighting racial, social and economic injustice in the Valley.

Meanwhile, others are voicing disappointment that council meetings — now held with an in-person audience — will no longer have phone-in public comment, a practice instituted when meetings were conducted via Zoom after the COVID-19 shutdowns.

The Los Angeles Community Action Network and ACCE-Los Angeles, also known as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, warned that the lack of phone-in options will force Black and Latino residents to choose between testifying publicly and risking exposure to COVID-19.

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“Canceling public comment via phone not only puts vulnerable populations’ health at risk, but also diminishes many Angelenos’ ability to effectively weigh in on important council matters and to participate in the democratic process,” the groups said in a joint statement.

In Los Angeles County, coronavirus cases last week were up 25% over the previous week, a trend Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer referred to as worrisome. Coronavirus levels in county wastewater systems have nearly doubled in two weeks, and clusters of cases, while still at low levels, are climbing at nursing homes, schools and workplaces.

Gilchrist said visitors to the building will be required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination or of a negative test within the previous 72 hours. Members of the public will also have the option of filling out online public comment forms, she said.

Council committee meetings will still be held virtually, with the public continuing to phone in their comments, Gilchrist said.

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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