Public safety leaders want to see a drop in protests and vandalism at public buildings in Minnesota and nationwide before taking down the fence that has surrounded the State Capitol since May.
First meant as a temporary precaution against a threat to the building amid rioting after George Floyd's killing, the fence has remained at the urging of state officials fearful that continued volatile protests will spill over onto the Capitol steps. It is costing the state about $8,200 per month.
Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis told an Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security on Tuesday that the 140-acre Capitol complex in St. Paul had seen 48 acts of vandalism, from graffiti to property damage, since August.
Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said the fence was a necessary buffer at a time of ongoing, often confrontational, protests in the area.
"We would like to see a diminution of the number of protests that originate with groups that have a history of vandalism or assaultive behavior," he said.
"We are also concerned about the political climate. … Currently we have organized groups that are in such conflict with each other that when they show up at the Capitol we have a much more volatile protest situation than we have had before."
At Tuesday's hearing, led by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the committee once again declined to set a time frame for the fence's removal. Harrington said in a recent Star Tribune interview that the upcoming trial of four former Minneapolis police officers charged with killing Floyd is also cause for concern for stoking further unrest.
Harrington told the committee Tuesday that 366 events had taken place at the State Capitol since June, 86 of which he said required the State Patrol to be present "in a significant fashion." There have been attempts to drive onto the grounds or deface the Capitol with red paint, he said, which mirror trends seen around the country.
Damage to Capitol buildings in Utah and Colorado have cost those states more than $1 million to repair, Harrington added. The toppling and painting of statues in Minneapolis in late November also has alarmed public safety officials and added to a total of at least $15 million in property damage incurred by the city this year, he said.
Some committee members questioned what set the current climate apart from previous moments of historically heightened unrest, such as the antiwar movement of the 1970s.
"Don't we have threats all the time?" asked state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. "I'm trying to understand the threat level, but I'm trying to find the balance where we satisfy a way of governing based on representation government. We seem to be reacting in fear on so many different fronts."
The difference, Harrington said, is that he hasn't seen "the Capitol and public buildings targeted in the same way we are seeing them targeted right now."
"We'd like the fence to come down as soon as we possibly can because frankly it's not an attractive way for us to operate on the Capitol complex," Harrington said.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley added that "as long as the House and Senate are operating remotely and as long as the governor's office is operating remotely, public access to the Capitol building isn't going to happen for COVID-related reasons."
"The fence doesn't really change anything" until in-person activities fully resume inside the building, he said.
Tuesday's hearing also previewed differing approaches in how the divided Legislature's two chambers plan to do business in 2021 amid the global pandemic.
House of Representatives Sergeant-at-Arms Bob Meyerson said the Democratic-led chamber would continue operating remotely through the session with the exception of floor sessions. The GOP-controlled Senate will take a hybrid approach by conducting a blend of in-person committee hearings in which members can also participate remotely, said Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman.
Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson reported that the state's high court would continue using the Minnesota Judicial Center's courtroom and remote hearings in lieu of its Capitol courtroom, a practice the court has maintained since April. Anderson said the court is looking forward to returning to the Capitol "when at such time the fence comes down and public access is restored."
The committee is expected to meet again before approving its annual report by mid-January. Flanagan said any decision on the fence would be made in consultation with Harrington and Roberts-Davis.
"I know as we are moving forward here that we of course still want the Capitol, the people's house, to continue to be a welcoming place," Flanagan said. "That is what it always has been, even when it's not safe to gather during a pandemic. We still want this to be a place to feel like they belong."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755