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Published January 11 2011

In light of the recent Arizona shooting, we polled our area elected officials and asked: Do you feel safe?

Red River Valley residents have exceptionally easy access to their government representatives, especially on the congressional level.

But after Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was severely injured and two federal employees killed in Saturday’s shooting rampage in Tucson, the safety of elected officials is on the minds of many.

Nearly two dozen public officials from the federal to local levels told The Forum on Monday they feel safe and generally don’t think extra precautions are needed for their security – indicating the amount of interaction local residents have with them likely won’t change.

The types of security measures in place for elected officials depend on the public office or the locations where officials meet.

On the federal level, the U.S. Capitol police force oversees the safety of members of Congress.

While members are protected by extreme security measures in Washington, D.C., the precautions exist to a much lesser degree back home.

For example, the Fargo-Moorhead offices of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven and North Dakota Rep. Rick Berg are all located in commercial buildings without the protection of metal detectors, government police or private security detail.

Democrat Klobuchar, who stopped in Moorhead on Monday for her “Innovation Tour,” vowed she wouldn’t let the Arizona shootings deter her from meeting with constituents, as Giffords was doing when she was shot.

But Klobuchar suggested local law enforcement agencies should evaluate how they respond to threats against elected officials and whether officers ought to be present at public events – decisions she said should be up to each agency.

Klobuchar has been threatened firsthand. In 2008, she was among six Minnesota members of Congress whose homes were vandalized by phrases like, “resign or else.”

“This is part of your job, and these things are going to happen,” Klobuchar said. “The last thing to do is just hide behind your office door and never come out. That would be a tragedy; our democracy would fall apart.”

Republicans Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg – who were sworn in last week – said they’re receptive to the procedures of the Capitol police, who are reviewing their policies in the aftermath of Saturday’s tragedy that killed six, including two federal employees.

“All of us will continue to exercise reasonable and prudent precautions when appropriate,” Hoeven said in a statement. “Meeting with North Dakotans and listening to their views is one of the most important and rewarding parts of my job, and I don’t plan to change my approach to doing that.”

More locally, though, city and school board officials tend not to have organized security in place for their meetings, but they can request a police presence if they feel it’s needed.

For instance, uniformed police officers attended at least two meetings in Fargo when officials discussed changes to the city’s sign code last year – an issue which fueled emotional and heated discussion in the business community.

Fargo Commissioners Brad Wimmer and Dave Piepkorn said Monday the board has discussed adding metal detectors outside its meeting room.

In West Fargo, Mayor Rich Mattern said he has a way to alert police – whose offices are just across the hall – if a situation escalates during a meeting, and they’ll also request police presence if needed.

Cass and Clay County officials have the protection of metal detectors, since they typically meet in courthouses.

Representatives from county boards said they’re satisfied with their level of security.

Less than a third of local officials who responded to The Forum on Monday said they had felt threatened during their time in office – with incidents including emotional letters, enraged late-night phone calls and threatening hand gestures.

“I don’t think public service is dangerous, but one always wants to be aware of the situations around them,” Moorhead City Council member Mark Hintermeyer said.


WHAT THEY SAID

In the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, The Forum asked elected officials in the Red River Valley how they feel about their safety. Out of 23 responses, officials said they generally felt safe in their jobs, and only six said they’d felt threatened at some point. Here are some of the responses:

1. Do you feel public service is dangerous?

“I have no reason to believe that public service is any more dangerous than any other occupation in which the individual’s position or decisions may have an impact on another person.”

Rick Steen, Fargo School Board

“You are always going to have one or two questionable characters running around, but we can’t change democracy for them.”

Mark Simmons, West Fargo City Commission

2. Do you think security should be increased at your meetings?

“To me, one of my concerns is City Hall in general. We do not have security at all versus the Cass County Courthouse.”

Dave Piepkorn, Fargo City Commission

“I don’t believe it’s necessary for police officers to attend all meetings. However, I do appreciate their presence as needed.”

Nancy Otto, Moorhead City Council

3. Have you ever felt threatened?

“There have always been fringe types – typically tax-protester types – that are intimidating and can make you wonder: How far are they willing to go?”

Kevin Campbell, Clay County Commission

“I have felt the strong emotions of individuals over items they have felt passionate about, but I have never felt threatened.”

Darrell Vanyo, Cass County Commission


Forum reporters Amy Dalrymple, Dave Olson, Heidi Shaffer and Patrick Springer contributed to this report. Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541