SACRAMENTO — Unfazed by the recent terrorist bombings of American embassies in Africa and a gunman's fatal attack at the U.S. Capitol, the Legislature is holding fast to its decision not to build a controversial security fence around California's statehouse.
Last year, the state budgeted $2 million for a fence, but lawmakers later decided to scrap the project. When the legislature put its final touches on the state budget over the last week, the decision against the fence remained in place.
For opponents, the decision to cancel the proposed low-slung concrete and steel-bar fence is a victory for the California tradition of ensuring that the "people's house" is open to the public.
But Gov. Pete Wilson and other fence supporters say abandoning it in the face of new acts of violence and global terrorism needlessly jeopardizes the safety of thousands at the Capitol--officials, staffers and visitors.
"If anything, after the events in Washington, D.C., and in Africa, our security concerns have been amplified," said California Highway Patrol Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick, the man in charge of protecting the Capitol.
The newly intensified debate pits long-running, often conflicting demands: providing improved safety, retaining the treasured atmosphere of government openness, and preserving the building's historic integrity.
Over the past few years, security has been gradually increased at the Capitol, highlighted by monitoring cameras, high-tech communications, extra guards on horseback and bicycles, and expanded training for unarmed legislative sergeants-at-arms.
Meanwhile, public access has remained virtually unrestricted.
Many tourists are amazed that they can walk into the building and roam at will without first clearing a security checkpoint.
"I was surprised that there really wasn't much security," visitor Gary Baker of Downey said Friday while touring the Capitol. "I expected it to be like at an airport. I would feel more comfortable if I had come through a security checkpoint."
But his wife, Dolores, said the building's open atmosphere reminded her of the friendliness of government buildings years ago, before violence forced changes.
"Everywhere you go now, you are restricted from something," she said. "I feel relaxed here, happy to be here and secure."
Fence or not, additional security at the historic golden-domed Capitol, one of the most popular tourist sites in California, seems certain to be intensified soon.
Helmick is recommending that 13 new officers--including a threat-investigation specialist--be hired for the already beefed-up Capitol security force. He favors installation of airport-style X-ray equipment and metal detectors at public entrances. He also wants to ban direct shipments and deliveries to the Capitol.
"It is a very difficult building to protect," Helmick said.
Sources said the subject of increased security at the Capitol resurfaced briefly among legislative budget writers in the aftermath of the violence in Washington, Kenya and Tanzania, but lawmakers decided not to reopen the fence issue.
However, Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman, said the fence is not a dead issue with the governor. In the remaining two weeks of the legislative session, the governor intends to lobby for reviving construction of the fence, he said.
"We still believe the fence is a necessary part of enhanced Capitol security," Walsh said.
He recalled that a few months ago, a drunk driver drove a pickup to the Capitol steps, ran inside and beat his fists on a desk in the lobby of Wilson's office. A gun was found later in the man's vehicle, Walsh said.
Last year, the Legislature and Wilson approved the $2-million fence as the centerpiece of a semi-secret $3.5-million Capitol security improvement package.
The proposal was developed in the aftermath of the deadly 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. A detailed security analysis of the Capitol by the California Highway Patrol and federal experts concluded that security was extraordinarily weak and the building was especially vulnerable to a car bomber.
"The best method to improve the safety environment at the Capitol is to provide a secure facility perimeter," the analysts said in a confidential report to Wilson and the Legislature.
They also warned that if an explosive or other weapon got inside the building, the potential damage "becomes considerable and the ability to detect and react to such a device is significantly reduced."
The fence, which would be about 4 feet high and encompass six city blocks in downtown Sacramento, emerged as a compromise after the CHP originally recommended positioning huge concrete barriers disguised as shrubbery planters at vulnerable spots around the Capitol.
Similar measures have been taken at the White House and various federal government buildings. Labeled "mini-Stonehenges" by critics, the patrol's concrete blocks were rejected as ugly and historically incompatible.