It is a shame Routt County continues to shield decisions about the new justice center from the public.
Last week, the county asked the Army Corps of Engineers to delay an already long overdue decision about the county's request for a wetlands permit to build the justice center next to the Routt County Jail. County officials would not say why they requested the delay. County officials would not say what the Army Corps' recommendation is. County officials would not say what they plan to do next or what information they want to get to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Bottom line? The county has taken the public out of what should be a very public process. In the meantime, the only thing we know for sure is that the cost for the new justice center isn't going down.
The process didn't start this way. In the beginning, the effort to build a new justice center was transparent.
In 2002, Routt County voters rejected a proposal to build a $17 million center and parking garage downtown. Routt County commissioners lobbied hard for approval of that proposal and when it failed, they rightly asked the public for help in crafting a new plan. Commissioners held several public meetings. They asked residents what went wrong with the ballot initiative and what they might do differently.
We applauded the county for holding meetings and listening to what taxpayers had to say. That public process gave enormous credibility to the justice center effort.
We were taken aback when the county abruptly decided in June 2003 that it would build the new center west of town using certificates of participation, which do not require voter approval. Still, given the public process to that point, we were willing to give the county the benefit of the doubt. When the Friends of the Justice Center, a group formed to lobby for building the justice center downtown, started questioning the chosen location, we criticized the Friends' efforts as "too little, too late."
We were wrong. The Friends of the Justice Center appears to have convinced the Corps that the downtown site is a "practicable alternative" to disturbing wetlands west of town. Last fall, the Corps decided it would deny the county's permit request. The Corps reiterated that stance in December. And surely the county would not have sought another delay last week if the Corps planned to approve it.
The county has spent millions of dollars on the justice center. A good chunk of that essentially has been wasted, because it was spent on a site -- either downtown or west of town -- that the county will have to abandon. There's no telling how much more is being spent on what looks to be an increasingly futile effort to get a wetlands permit approved.
Since the decision to use certificates of participation to build the justice center, the county consistently has shut the public out of the justice center process. County officials have withheld public documents, held private meetings with the Army Corps and refused to answer basic questions about their strategy in regard to the justice center.
This is no longer a debate about where the justice center should be built. To be honest, many residents have simply lost interest. The problem is that $15 million or more in public funds is at stake, and the public deserves far better answers than the county is providing.