Johnson County officials: Justice center future uncertain after failed vote

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | MAY 09, 2013 5:00 AM

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Just 6 percentage points was all that stood between a now-failed bond referendum and the construction of a new Johnson County justice center Tuesday evening.

Collecting 13,648 votes with 54 percent voting in favor of the plan, the referendum was unsuccessful in obtaining the 60 percent supermajority needed to pass. A collective 7,394 ballots were cast to approve the project, while 6,226 voted to deny the measure.

Despite the drastic drop from the November election, Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said he remains pleased with turnout of the estimated $65,000 to $70,000 special election.

“We were really happy with even 13-14 percent of this special election,” he said. “Would we have liked 100 percent turnout, of course. But we’ve got to adapt to the campaigns.”

Weipert said many questions remain, and it now falls onto Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek, the Auditor’s Office, and the Board of Supervisors in determining the next move. He said according to law, the soonest the justice-center issue could return to the ballot would be March 4, 2014.

However Supervisor Rod Sullivan questioned the legitimacy of having the issue return on a March 4 ballot.

“A lot of people have published that the next time this can come on the ballot is March, but I think that’s quite premature,” he said. “I’m not sure where we ought to go. Frankly, I think it’s time for some other people to come up with ideas. We have a job to do, and that has not changed.  We’ve got some fairly expensive repairs coming with the jail, and I think we’ll have to have some serious discussions about that.”

Nearly all of the supervisors and Pulkrabek have long been advocates of the project that would have resulted in the creation of a 195-bed jail and four courtrooms.

Residents of Iowa City remained split on the second proposal in less than a year, garnering just 54 percent — or 2,673 — of the municipality’s voters. Only five of the city’s 24 precincts — Lincoln, St. Patrick, Horn, Lemme, and Grant Wood — reached the 60 percentile.

Precincts historically dominated by the University of Iowa students include the Main Library, Johnson County Courthouse, Rec Center, and Quadrangle. Only 51 ballots were cast at those locations.

According to the unofficial voter returns, nearly all other Johnson County communities supported the referendum. Seventy percent of University Heights residents voted in favor, while the Coralville, North Liberty, and Solon precincts registered 61, 57, and 65 percent approval.

Facebook group Oppose the Johnson County Jail (“justice center”) founder Donald Baxter said the turnout numbers might be attributed to a number of factors, such as the asking price and the result of the referendum being held by a single issue.

“Voter turnout on a single-issue referendum is never gargantuan,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure who was anticipating voter turnout would be high. It was a $40-plus million bond issue, and I honestly think the people that voted on it were the ones most informed.”

Baxter said despite the county’s liberal tendencies, the conclusion on this matter remains cohesive.

“I think that basically the voters of Johnson County are saying they don’t trust our political leaders with this project,” he said. “This is as close to a coup d’état as it gets in this county. They [county attorney, Board of Supervisors, and the Sheriff’s Office] need to be a little afraid of their political futures. If you arrested everybody in this county who broke a law, you’d have to build a prison as big as Kinnick.”

Lone Republican Supervisor John Etheredge has long been a opponent of the recently failed proposal. Despite the absence of definitive plans, he said the need for upgrades is evident.

“We have some time, but the time is still of the essence if we’re going to do something major with the jail, however the immediate need of Johnson County is of more court space,” he said.

Etheredge mulled the idea of a small addition to the Courthouse and expansion of the current jail being a part of the county’s future but said the projects will be determined based on a needs-based situation.

“We can’t address what our wants are; we have to address what our needs are,” he said.

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