The State Capitol and the resounding vault of its central rotunda provide the backdrop for the Minnesota's premiere soapbox.
When a person with AIDS or an angry taxpayer or any other petitioner seeking redress stands near the symbolic "North Star" and speaks under the 142-foot dome, something special happens. "It has a powerful feel,'' said Amy Brugh, director of external relations for the Minnesota AIDS Project.
So a change to the logistical rules for Capitol events has stirred quiet but passionate interest. The state is going out of the business of setting up and taking down chairs, sound systems, risers and podiums for these events, and is asking groups to do that on their own or to hire outside companies to do so.
"Now, instead of calling up and being able to order chairs and a sound system, we have to use outside vendors,'' said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, which expects 700 people at the Capitol on Feb. 14. "You know how many rallies there are every day? They're going to be blocking the main driveway all the time. It's going to cost more for groups sponsoring events to find an outside vendor to do it.''
Officials for the state Department of Administration, which made the decision Oct. 31, said it will not affect access or availability. Groups obtaining permits to use the building have always paid the state for these services, they noted. The small state crew that performed the tasks at the Capitol and other buildings was losing staff and becoming more expensive than private vendors.
Curt Yoakum, communications director for the department, said groups were notified and the building will remain open for events. "I don't think you'll see a sea change in how that operates,'' he said.
According to Kari Suchy, business operations manager for the department, the state historically has set up and removed risers, podiums, sound systems, chairs and tables for these events. In the 2011 fiscal year, there were 454 public events inside and outside the Capitol, and the time slots for the legislative session that begins Jan. 24 are filling up.
These events have rules and protocols to which organizers must agree, such as not attaching signs to state walls, not blocking halls, not using sticks or poles for signs and -- considering the height of the rotunda -- no balloons. (A red heart balloon lodged for months against Wisconsin's domed ceiling during last year's labor protests.)
The rules aren't the problem, event organizers say. They fear the changes will deter less well-organized groups.
"We think the Capitol is a place where people should be able to come and say what they think,'' added Brugh, whose group is sponsoring an AIDS action day on Feb. 9. "We want that to happen in as easy a way as possible.''
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042