The temporary chain link fence that was put up around the Minnesota State Capitol might not be as temporary as hoped.
Two weeks after the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Administration said the fence would soon be gone, she is now recommending that it remain in place with no date for removal. A meeting is scheduled today by the Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security to discuss the proposal.
The fence was installed by the state at the request of the Department of Public Safety after it discovered what it considered credible threats to the Capitol building following the homicide of George Floyd. The fence cost $23,119 for installation and eventual removal and the state rents the fencing for $274 per day. It seals the building from visitors and only credentialed lawmakers, staff and news media can currently enter the Capitol via adjacent buildings.
Alice Roberts-Davis, the commissioner of the Department of Administration, said she got ahead of herself two weeks ago when she said the fence would be removed “in the very near future.” While Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan would prefer that the fence come down soon, Roberts-Davis said Monday she now thinks it would be premature to do so.
Increased incidents of graffiti and other vandalism on the grounds outside the perimeter of the fence — and some recent protests and counter-protests unrelated to the George Floyd death — have caused her to change her mind.
“What we’re seeing is a really different type of activity at the Capitol which would lead me to believe that the fence being there would be the best route and that’s what Admin will be suggesting today; that we leave up the fence for just a little bit longer,” she said.
She said there has been graffiti found on the pedestals of statues and elsewhere, and the Peace Officers Memorial was recently damaged. “We’re concerned that removing the fence would allow the Capitol to be the subject of some of that vandalism as well and we certainly wouldn’t want that after we invested so much in restoring the building,” she said. “Any damage to that would be unfortunate and a loss. We certainly don’t want to give any opportunity for people to bring rocks or bricks or bottles with accelerants that could cause some type of permanent damage.”
The department has been monitoring social media to see if unpermitted protests are being discussed and to reach out to groups asking them to seek permits. It also gives the department information it relays to capital security so they are aware of any possible conflicts between protesters and counter protestors.
So when might the fencing come down?
Roberts-Davis said she didn’t expect to set a specific date for removal. “But I do think that it’s not a short-term idea,” she said. “I think there’s a potential that if we take it down we’ll have to put it back up again or if we take it down and experience some significant damage to the physical plant of the capitol building.”
On July 23, after a meeting of the Capital Area Architectural and Planning Board that had discussed the destruction of a statue of Christopher Columbus, Roberts-Davis had been asked about the fence.
“We anticipate that that will be coming down in the very near future. We don’t see the need for that to be ongoing at the Capitol,” she said then.
Greater access to the Capitol would still be governed by pandemic-related capacity and social distancing restrictions that were in place after the governor’s peacetime emergency was declared in mid-March.
Flanagan, who chairs both the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board and the committee on Capitol-area security, said after the most recent meeting of the planning board that she welcomed the removal of the fencing, saying it impacted the process of the Legislature and its interaction with the public.
“It certainly impacted the kind of discourse around session, and I am eager to see that removed,” Flanagan said. “It is important for the public to have access to the halls of decision makers. While we are still under the pandemic, there are ways for folks to gather safely and when you have a fence around a building that is the House of People; intentional or not, it sends a message to folks about their ability to participate.”
Monday, Roberts-Davis said she “got a little ahead of herself” because she knew that Walz and Flanagan wanted the fence removed.
“That was the direction I was prepared to move, but after thinking about it and talking to others, it really is the responsibility of the advisory committee to make those decisions,” she said.
Ultimately, it is the department’s decision to make once it hears from the advisory committee, which is made up of Flanagan, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea as well as two members of the state Senate and two members of the state House. Currently those members are Sen. Warren Limmer, Maple Grove; Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis: Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia; and Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.
Two special sessions of the Legislature have taken place since then, both considering legislation on police accountability following the homicide of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While that issue has been resolved, lawmakers will return to session Wednesday, an event triggered by the extension of the peacetime state of emergency for another 30 days by Walz.
That will make three sessions where the public is not allowed inside the capitol building, and able to observe committee meetings and floor sessions via teleconference and webcasts only.