By Lori Lindner
SOLON– It was a small crowd, but that’s okay with Johnson County officials seeking input on what to do next about the county’s dearth of jail and courtroom space.
The Aug. 13 meeting at the Solon Public Library, attended by just five interested parties and three county representatives, was one of seven public input sessions offered by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors this month; the county is going back to the drawing board for the third time to determine how to meet a growing population’s need for court and jail services while satisfying at least 60 percent of the voters who have to pay for it.
“We’ve had big public hearings where we filled the courthouse, and some voices dominated that. That happens in public meetings sometimes, because it’s no longer okay to just disagree, you have to destroy your opponent, and some people have been too intimidated to speak out. We thought these smaller meetings might start helping that,” said Johnson County supervisor Janelle Rettig.
In addition to the public input sessions scheduled throughout Johnson County communities at various times of day, the county is also providing the chance for people to leave comments in an online survey, via email or by filling out a written form.
A proposed new justice center, which would have combined a new jail and a remodeled courthouse on Clinton Street in Iowa City, failed three times to garner the 60 percent voter approval required to pass a bond referendum to pay for the facility, the first time in 2000.
In November 2012, the county asked for $46.8 million and received approval from 56 percent of the 64,129 people who voted on the matter in the general election. The board worked with Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek, County Attorney Janet Lyness and architects from Neumann Monson and Venture Architects to revise the 2012 proposal, and returned to the public in a special election in May 2013, asking for $43.5 million for a slightly scaled-back version. That referendum received 54 percent voter approval.
While it wasn’t enough to pass, Rettig noted it was both times the majority of voters.
“Last November was the highest turnout for an election (in county history), and 56 percent of our bosses told us to do something,” said Rettig. “We are in a little bit of a quandary about what comes next, because you have a majority of your population who wants you to do something, but you are not allowed to legally do it.”
At last Tuesday’s listening post, Rettig and fellow supervisor Terrence Neuzil went into some detail about how the two previous plans were crafted, and how the board– at many times divided and at odds over the proposal– came to enough of a consensus to bring it before voters.
However, Neuzil said, the challenge now is to move past the previous proposals and look at information anew.
“That’s what these meetings are about, to say, ‘hey let’s all get out there and rethink this a little bit.’ In my mind, (the challenge is) to get the past two proposals out of my head,” Neuzil said.
Hearing from everyone, pro and con, is the goal of holding this new round of public input meetings, but it won’t be easy to address all the concerns posed by opponents, or even reluctant supporters. Those who publicly campaigned against the justice center concept cited a wide range of reasons, including its overall price tag, the location near downtown Iowa City, the appearance of the proposed building, and the idea that building a bigger jail does not solve the problems of racial disparity of the inmate population or unnecessary arrests for nonviolent crimes.
“People who voted against it are all over the board on what they think,” said Rettig. “I think the vast majority of the people do understand that doing nothing isn’t an option, but finding a path that people are willing to let you follow; we don’t know how to get there.”
Solon resident and school district employee Diane Wurzer said regardless of what happens next, she feels any new proposals must contain increased opportunities for support, prevention and intervention programs for inmates. Wurzer has been involved in the county’s One-On-One Mentoring program through St. Mary Catholic Church in Solon, and the Circle of Support and Accountability initiative, and has seen first-hand the positive outcomes such programming can facilitate.
“I think that is huge in helping people succeed,” Wurzer said. “If they get out of jail, and end up going back to the same neighborhood and surroundings, they just get drawn back in.”
Rettig pointed out that the previous justice center proposals included space in each of the jail’s pod-like configurations to hold its jail alternatives programs; a fact that not a lot of people were aware of, the supervisors are now learning.
“The county has invested a lot of money in jail alternatives– and I think we are, as a percentage of our budget, if not the highest, then we have to be close– for social services, in alcohol and drug treatment and mental health (assistance); a very high percentage of our budget goes into programming. And we know it’s working,” said Rettig. “Over the last three years, our average daily jail population has dropped by 20 people per day, and it’s because of this partnership between the board of supervisors, the sheriff’s department and the county attorney funding jail alternatives and case expediting.”
Neuzil noted the significance of such a drop.
“You’ve got a county that is growing by 10,000 to 20,000 residents every 10 years, if not more. The numbers are going to continue to grow, and to see the jail numbers actually reduce in a community that is one of the fastest growing in Iowa– those are pretty solid numbers.” Yet with a jail facility that was originally built for a capacity of 46, and still has technology from 1979, in a space that is landlocked, Neuzil said, it grows more difficult.
“The current board of supervisors were given a pretty bad hand from past policy makers who didn’t think beyond five years. Five years after they built it, it was out of space,” he added.
Rural Solon resident Paul Deaton suggested the $43 million cost of a combined justice center and courthouse was too much for many voters he spoke with about the issue.
“I very much view the 60 percent as protecting the minority,” Deaton said. “I support the idea we should have 60 percent to pass. And in a large turnout election, people said no, that’s the upshot of it. The big, centralized facility just didn’t win favor, and it was mostly because of the high price tag from people I know who opposed it.”
Yet Deaton agreed the majority of people he spoke with also believe something needs to be done to address the space problems at both the jail and the courthouse. Deaton posed several questions about the design, configuration and location for a jail, courtrooms and court services, all intended to give the supervisors more food for thought.
Ultimately, Neuzil said, there are some questions that need to be asked and answered in specific order.
“First and foremost, we have to figure out if we are going to keep the concept of a courthouse and jail facility; because that has a lot to do with (the next question), do we keep the courthouse where it is? But if we are going to concede that those two facilities need to be separate, then that opens up a whole new ball game,” Neuzil said.
Previous location studies have shown that some people favor putting a justice center on the County Poor Farm property. However, Neuzil said, in the 2000 proposal, people didn’t like the idea that individuals who were released from jail would potentially be walking down Melrose Avenue, through residential neighborhoods and past a high school, to get home.
“You had this huge argument of why that was a bad location,” Neuzil recalled. “That’s what the board has to get a perspective on from the community: do you want to save the courthouse, and if you do, do you want to have a justice center? Do you want to have the efficiencies, the safety, the security of having inmates securely brought directly to the courtrooms; if not, you have to have them transported if you put a jail three miles out, they still have to be driven.”
Rettig said a 56 percent positive vote told her that most people in the county felt like the November proposal was the best.
“That’s where we are in this awkward transition, when 56 percent of your bosses tell you to do something, and you can’t do it, now what do you do?” Rettig posed. “Because they did say yes, just not in a high enough margin.”
Deaton differed on the message sent by the electorate.
“I don’t agree with that perspective. The plan has to be redesigned,” Deaton said. He commended the board, the sheriff and the county attorney for their diligence in studying and crafting what they felt was the best proposal possible, and thanked them for their work.
However, as the 60 percent vote was twice unattainable, rethink it, he said. “We balked at the $43 million justice center and I think you are shooting yourself in the foot if you call for a justice center the next time around.”
The supervisors will continue to rethink it as they travel in pairs to the remaining public input sessions, and will recap input gathered at a day-long work session of all five supervisors on Aug. 28.
To add your comments to the discussion, visit www.johnson-county.com/dept_survey.aspx?id=13603 , email email@example.com , or call 319-356-6000.
Upcoming public input sessions:
• Friday, Aug. 23, 9 until 10:30 a.m., Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center, Assembly Room, 28 S. Linn St., Iowa City, with supervisors Rettig and Pat Harney.
• Sunday, Aug. 25, 4 until 5:30 p.m., Johnson County Administration Building, lower level conference room, 913 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City, with supervisors Harney and Rod Sullivan.
• Monday, Aug. 26, 6:30 until 8 p.m., Lone Tree Community Building, 203-1/2 N. Devoe St., Lone Tree, with supervisors Harney and John Etheredge.