The Colorado Court of Appeals' decision to vacate an order to build a new judicial facility buys Routt County commissioners time to re-examine their justice center plans and gives them the opportunity to let the voters decide, once and for all, where to build the center.
On his last day in office at the end of 2002, two months after voters had rejected a costly downtown judicial facility, Judge Richard Doucette issued a likely unenforceable order instructing the county to build a new facility by Sept. 1, 2006. The commissioners then used Doucette's politically motivated decision to create a false sense of urgency to build a new facility next to the Routt County Jail. When asked to reconsider aspects of their plan, commissioners often responded that there was no time to do so given the court-ordered deadline.
Ironically, when the Court of Appeals threw out Doucette's ruling May 20, at least one commissioner continued to cling to Doucette's now unctuous timetable.
"This really doesn't change anything," Commissioner Doug Monger said. "We still have a project that is on the table and ready to move forward."
But the court's ruling does change things. The commissioners are no longer artificially bound by Doucette's capricious and arbitrary deadline, and the voters have plenty of time to decide the most contentious aspects of the justice center, including location and cost.
Commissioners strenuously have argued that in 2002 the voters rejected the downtown location. But did voters reject the location or the financial mechanisms and aesthetic costs associated with the proposed structure?
Unfortunately, the ballot option was an all-or-nothing choice. Though the process allowed voters the opportunity to provide input on the justice center, the option presented on the ballot lumped together several issues, including the structure, the cost, a parking garage and the location. Thus, voter will on the downtown site never fully was understood.
Another reason raised to build near the jail is that it is too late to turn back now that $1.3 million has been invested in the west-of-downtown site. But this misleading line of reasoning ignores the fact that the county has spent more than $2 million exploring options and preparing for the original downtown site.
Finally, while we applaud the county's public process in 2003 in developing its current plan, we're not convinced that process produced community consensus on the justice center location.
The county has until July 23 to put an issue on the November ballot. The ballot language for any such issue must be finalized by Sept. 8. Potentially, a question could come before voters this fall. But given the appellate court ruling, there's no reason to rush.
During the past three years, the same board of commissioners has offered two proposals for building a new justice center. The county now has time to explore reasonable alternatives at each site, though it's likely that the most contentious component of the downtown location, the construction of a parking garage, must remain a necessary part of any downtown alternative.
This is a building that will last 100 years or more. County commissioners have, at one time or another, advocated for both sites and they have spent millions of dollars developing plans for each. Give those plans to the voters and let them decide.