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Security screening on the way at Jackson courthouse

fr courthouseStarting Sept. 28, employees and visitors to the Jackson County Justice and Administration Building will no longer have their choice of doors through which to reach their destination. Instead, the building will become a one-entrance-only building, with a security guard and metal detector stationed at the door.

“We live in a world today that is much different than it used to be and people all the time are looking at ways to make a statement, and unfortunately a lot of innocent people are injured or — even more tragically — killed because of those acts of violence,” County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said of the change. 

The new protocol, according to an ordinance commissioners passed last week, will require that  visitors and their bags be screened by metal detectors to pass through security. Drugs, guns, pepper spray and sharp-edged items including scissors and box-cutters all fall within the list of items that won’t be allowed inside, unless there’s some legitimate justification. Security guards won’t be allowed to store contraband items — people who bring them inside will have to take them back out to the car. 

Not everyone will have to be screened with each coming and going. People who regularly use the building as their place of business will receive ID cards, allowing them to come and go freely through the secured entrance during business hours, defined as 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. This includes county staff, commissioners, local attorneys, judicial and court staff, judges, court reporters, people specifically invited to the justice center and those working with the Sheriff’s office. 

“I think it will just take a little bit of time to get used to it, but most people will be OK with it,” McMahan said. 

Commissioner meetings will continue to be held in the building after-hours, but due to the extra expense of posting security guards at the doors outside of normal business hours, the county will look to house other after-hours gatherings in different venues. 

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Only one person spoke at a public hearing before commissioners’ vote last week, but that speaker expressed vehement opposition to the new rules. 

Carl Iobst, a Cullowhee resident who routinely gives public comment at commissioners meetings criticizing Jackson County’s government, called the new security measures “a total waste of my money” and maintained that because judges are already allowed to carry firearms under their robes, the security spending is superfluous. 

All told, it cost Jackson County $343,000 to purchase equipment and reconfigure the new entrance. The security measures will cost another $140,000 per year to hire additional security officers for the entrance.

The renovations came at the order of Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts, who had been telling commissioners for some time that the Jackson courthouse was dangerously insecure as well as increasingly tight for space. In 2014, Jackson County commissioned a study from Heery International, the same company that designed Haywood County’s new courthouse — also built at Letts’ prompting. Heery deemed that, in addition to security upgrades, Jackson needed 35,800 square feet more, an addition that would cost millions. 

At the time the study came out, commissioners decided against tackling an expensive justice center overhaul just then, but that meant the security issue hung in limbo too. When the newly elected board sat for its January planning retreat, Letts appeared to give commissioners a message.

“There’s two issues I want to bring to your attention, issues I’ve been bringing to your attention for the last 10 years,” he said. Those two issues, he said, were security and space — but the most pressing was security. 

Letts told commissioners in no uncertain terms to get a move on in addressing the security issue. That discussion prompted them to start talking about moving to a single-point-of-entry system, the work for which contractors are just now finishing. The new ordinance governs the policies and procedures surrounding the new system. 

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