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Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

When ‘public’ buildings cease being fully public

“I can’t afford to spend $65 for a state identification card” to enter what ostensibly is a public building, said Penny Shaw (above).
Jonathan Wiggs/globe staff/file
“I can’t afford to spend $65 for a state identification card” to enter what ostensibly is a public building, said Penny Shaw (above).

Penny Shaw gets around in a power wheelchair. And I mean really gets around. She’s an indefatigable advocate for the disabled, her voice well-known in government hearing rooms across the city.

But last month the state imposed a new requirement for entry into the McCormack state office building that might stop — or at least slow — Shaw and others like her from doing the kind of advocacy that’s earned her national recognition.

Under regulations that took effect Nov. 20, you need either a driver’s license, passport, or state or college identification card to enter the 21-story tower next to the State House that houses many agencies serving the disabled, the elderly, and the poor.

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In 2001, Shaw contracted a rare neuromuscular condition that robbed her of her career in teaching (she has a PhD in French literature), as well as her financial independence and mobility. But not her spirit. She’s a whistle-blower and reformer, a member of more than a dozen committees, including an advisory group to the state office of elder affairs, which meets in the McCormack Building.

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For many years she has lived in a Braintree nursing home, her care paid for by the state and federal government. She gets $72.80 a month in cash from the government for discretionary spending, an amount that hasn’t changed in almost 10 years. That’s about $875 a year to cover personal grooming, her cellphone, and other expenditures. (Half her modest cellphone bill is paid by an advocacy group because she uses it to answer a nursing home help line).

“I can’t afford to spend $65 for a state identification card,” said Shaw, 74. “And there are plenty of others just like me who can’t afford it.”

It would cost $34 for Shaw to obtain a copy of her birth certificate from the state of Michigan; $6.30 for transportation to the Registry of Motor Vehicles (which issues IDs); and $25 for the ID itself. In her world, a $5 bottle of body wash must be budgeted for. Friends sometimes give her clothing and other things.

“Some people live hand to mouth,” she told me as we sat in a tiny study room at the Thayer Public Library in Braintree, about a mile from her home (That’s her you sometimes see whipping along the Washington Street sidewalk between home and library).

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The agency that manages the McCormack Building on Beacon Hill recognizes the tension between security and the kind of free access to public buildings that was commonplace before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. There’s also the increasing worry about workplace violence.

Matt Cocciardi, a state spokesman, said the state “takes its responsibility to provide safe and secure buildings to both state employees and visitors seriously.” He said the new ID requirement “balances security concerns of workers with access to public offices.”

But what about people who can’t afford the requisite ID?

Sean P. Murphy/Globe Staff
The sign on door to the McCormack building.

They must wait until someone in state government confirms they have an appointment and comes to the lobby to escort them upstairs, according to the state.

If someone has no ID and no appointment, will they be denied access to the building?

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No answer from the state on that one.

‘I can’t afford to spend $65 for a state identification card.’

— Penny Shaw, advocate, on new rule for entering McCormack Building 

I hate the idea of government becoming more walled off from the people, the interactions between the governing and the governed becoming more stage-managed. Many of us are well-aware of four of the five protections of the First Amendment (religion, speech, press, and assembly). But there’s also a constitutional right, in the words of the founders, “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” I would think that includes in-person petitioning.

It’s a shame to see bedrock rights being chipped away, even for the worthy goal of security.

Years ago, I had a ball trudging from one government office to another, anonymously picking up bits of information as building blocks for one of my stories. (Ever hear of shoe-leather reporting?) In those pre-digital days, the only way to look up such things as campaign contributions and the names of corporate officers was by showing up at the McCormack Building.

I never made an appointment, never showed an ID. I considered it a right as a citizen.

John Winske apparently also sees the new policy as an abridgement of one of the most basic of citizen rights. He’s executive director of the Disability Policy Consortium, an advocacy and research group. In a recent community newsletter, Winske bemoaned the new ID rule at the McCormack Building.

“Here is the problem,” he wrote. “Many hearings and public meetings are held in this building. You should not have to show an ID to speak to government officials or to have your opinion heard. A Massachusetts State ID cost $25 every five years. Is this the new price to have a voice in government in the Commonwealth? We don’t require an ID to vote, we should not require one to be heard by government officials.”

He called for an investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office is atop the McCormack Building. Healey has voiced concerns over access to the McCormack Building to the governor’s office and plans to discuss the matter with Winske this week, a spokeswoman for Healey said.

“This presents some barriers to people seeking services,” said Emalie Gainey, the spokeswoman. “Our office does not want this new process to be a deterrent to those who need help.”

I took a walk around downtown Boston to observe the requirements for entering a dozen city, state, and federal buildings. At none of them was I able to enter unimpeded. But at one state office building and one city office building (not City Hall) I merely signed in on a paper log; no ID shown, no scanning of the shoulder bag I carried. (I won’t identify them, so as not to tip off a potential intruder).

My favorite entry was at the State House, where front-door security is managed by rangers from the Department of Conservation and Recreation. No one asked me for an ID. And as my bag emerged from the scanner, an obliging ranger asked, “You know where you are going today, sir?”

Accused terrorists sometimes appear in court at the federal courthouse, so it is not surprising that a security officer there studied the ID I handed him long enough to make me believe he was making sure my face and the card matched. Still, no one at the federal courthouse logged my identity into a database. That’s what they do at the McCormack Building and at 100 Cambridge Street (formerly known as the Saltonstall Building).

In fact, only at the McCormack Building and 100 Cambridge Street did I observe a visitor database being created. (The database is considered a public record, though portions may be withheld if a valid exemption is cited, the state said.) No word on how the database will be used internally, if at all. Am I entirely comfortable with the state storing all my visits to the McCormack Building on a computer server? No, not really.

I entered two federal buildings (O’Neill and JFK), Boston City Hall, and the state’s main courthouse in Boston without being asked for an ID or to sign in. Scanning was the most thorough at the JFK, where I had to take off my belt and boots.

Shaw, sans ID, is scheduled to testify this week at a State House hearing on increasing patients’ protection from being overprescribed psychoactive drugs. She said she will take the freight elevator because the part of the building where the hearing is being held is more than two centuries old and not wheelchair-accessible.

That doesn’t bother her. Being excluded from government offices for lack of an ID does.

“It’s crucial that disabled and elderly and low-income people have access to government,” she said. “That’s basic.”

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.