Johnson County justice center proposal fails with 54 percent of vote

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | MAY 08, 2013 5:00 AM

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After more than 12 tumultuous years of back-and-forth divisive debate regarding the treatment of Johnson County’s growing judicial and jail demands, a $43.5 million bond referendum was defeated Tuesday evening, leaving amended plans for a new justice center in the dust.

The bond referendum gathered 13,648 total votes with 54 percent voting in favor of the plan. A 60 percent supermajority was needed for the measure to pass. In all, 7,394 ballots were cast to approve the project, while 6,226 voted to deny the measure.

Auditor Travis Weipert told the DI Monday that he had hoped for around 14,000 votes for the more than $70,000 election, and the turnout had proved to be significantly higher than a March special election. 

Longtime advocate and Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said the next step for government officials is to hold a May 14 meeting to begin the process of mulling the facilities’ future.

“I have a responsibility for the safety, health, and welfare of our employees and the public, and I want to see some immediate changes to the Courthouse and to the jail to address that,” he said. “If anybody thinks by voting no the issue is going away — actually, in the long run it’s going to get more difficult and more expensive from here on out. We’ve got a lot of work ahead.”

The current plan saw its first proposal on the November 2012 ballot and the following months left members of both sides in limbo. Voter turnout was significantly smaller than the first appearance. With the exception of Supervisor John Etheredge, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek have long been advocates of the project that would have resulted in the creation of a 195-bed jail and four courtrooms.

Pulkrabek could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

The original proposal that failed to garner the necessary 60 percent supermajority called for a more expensive, 243-bed facility with six courtrooms. The first time around, 56 percent of votes were in favor of the new project.

Alongside the reduction in beds and courtroom space, cost-saving measures in the most recent proposal included substituting masonry for glass and having the county contribute $2.7 million toward final construction costs, up from the original $1.3 million.

Echoing the thoughts of Neuzil, Supervisor Rod Sullivan said how to move ahead remains unanswered.

“In terms of moving forward, I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

“Obviously, it’s discouraging; particularly tough to get over 50 percent and meet the high bar that Iowa has for bond issues. The same concerns that we have today of space, security, and lack of room are going to be problems of tomorrow and into the future, and we still have to deal with these things.”

Sullivan said a minimum of three supervisors must agree on some central action in order to push forward, and for the time being, parts of the big problem need to be addressed.

“It’s all important, and it’s all intertwined,” he said. “It’s a little bit like a balloon. You squeeze it in one space, and it disperses to another.”

Aleksey Gurtovoy, a local activist and cofounder of stopbigbrother.org, said he was pleased with overall voter turnout and said this second defeat solidifies the county’s view of the justice center.

“The people of Johnson County know there are a lot of things wrong with the criminal-justice system,” he said. “It used to be that going to jail was something out of the ordinary. Now, somebody knows somebody who has been to jail.”

Gurtovoy said he is confident that both sides can come together in order to achieve constructive actions, such as addressing social and racial disparities in the current judicial system that he said has run rampant in the past few years.

“It’s not functioning the way it should be,” he said. “Generally, there are people in jail that shouldn’t be in jail. Building a bigger jail and adding more space to the Courthouse by itself is not going to resolve this. Ultimately, this is why this got defeated this time and last time around.”

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