Stuart Orzach: City Council did right thing on justice center
April 27, 2004
Spirited debate is the lifeblood of democracy. I commend the new City Council for shedding the old “go along to get along” philosophy and courageously moving the justice center debate forward with their three-part action.
They voted to write to the Army Corps of Engineers to inform them that a practicable alternative to the west of downtown Steamboat site exists and to correct the misinformation provided in the county commissioners’ application. They voted to join the county in the appeal of the court order issued by Judge Doucette on his last day before retirement. And, they voted to write to the county commissioners to invite them to the table to discuss the location issue.
The necessary discussion will not “drive a wedge” between the two local governing bodies. What will separate the city from the county is the commissioners’ treatment of Steamboat Springs residents as aliens. We constitute half the population of the county and pay 80 percent of the taxes. Commissioner Monger’s blustery remarks, echoed in the press, drive the wedge further.
Voters turned down a bond issue to fund a new justice center. The election was not a referendum on location. In fact, Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak called “location” a “ping-pong” issue. In other words, some people were all too willing to volley the facility out west, to assuage some concern with the initial proposal, without ever considering the full impact of a change of site.
The claim that the choice of West Steamboat was the result of “extensive public process” is false. The decision was made by the commissioners. It was a split decision, and the two proponents are taking cover behind the courthouse committee.
The commissioners formed the committee after the defeat of the bond issue at the urging of residents. The group agreed that another bond issue probably would not pass.
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The commissioners then dictated that the location issue needed to be decided first, before considering design, size, cost, transportation policy, community design or economic impact. They did this because if the west of downtown site were to be chosen, the preliminary studies, already completed for the downtown site, would have to commence immediately to meet the completion date stipulated in the court order. We were assured that it would be cheaper to build out west. As it turns out, when you remove the unneeded parking structure and add the sunk cost of the downtown parcel, already purchased, the west site is more expensive. For the 25 years that this community has been discussing the need for better judicial facilities, the downtown site is the only one that has received serious consideration.
“Public process” on this most critical issue consisted of inviting us to fill the commissioners’ meeting room and name pros and cons of the west site, the downtown site, and even a split facility. Our ideas were recorded on large sheets of paper posted on easels in front of the room. There was no discussion, no analysis. A straw poll was taken. The commissioners rendered their decision in a 2-1 vote at a subsequent public session. Some people left the process in disgust at this point. Others stayed around to hammer out the details of a proposal they could never support.
Subsequent to the defeat of the bond issue, two new issues have come to the fore, ostensibly to sell the public on the superiority of the west site.
The alleged greater safety and lower cost of transporting prisoners to the west site dominated recent discussion. Less than 5 percent of court cases involve jail inmates. During the campaign to get the bond issue passed, the safety issue had only to do with making sure the new facility had three separate and distinct zones of circulation: one for the public, one for staff, and one for prisoners. This would avoid having these parties mingle in a common hallway and minimize the risk of intimidation and mistrial.
We also are being told that the land purchased downtown is needed for future expansion of other county offices.
Really? It wasn’t needed before the bond issue failed. The county is just getting around to soliciting bids for future space needs study.
Do the commissioners always fly by the seats of their pants? Is their recent rhetoric supposed to increase our confidence in their decision-making ability?
One downtown parcel was seized by eminent domain. Has the county no legal or moral obligation to use it for the purpose for which it was acquired?
When solutions are not apparent, you have to turn things upside down and view them from a different angle. We must be more creative, less rigid, and get out of the box, perhaps literally in this case.
Leaders need to offer vision, hope and the promise to work for the betterment of the community, however circuitous and inconvenient the route. Parsing the terms of the Community Plan won’t suffice.
The county must engage the community, in a meaningful way, for the first time.