In the Dark 

Record debunks county's claims that public was apprised of jail project

El Paso County Administrator Terry Harris told members of a county advisory committee in June that if a ballot proposal to expand the county jail were to fail, county commissioners would try to place it on the ballot again later.

Harris echoed this to a group of citizens gathered to discuss county-related issues at the Hillside Community Center last summer.

In addition, the Justice Advisory Council, which advises local government officials about jail-related issues, also discussed "contingency measures" for jail overcrowding in the event that the ballot measure would fail, as it eventually did.

The record -- that commissioners planned to bring the initiative back before the voters if it failed the first time -- runs counter to recent public claims by county commissioners. Now, they insist, the public was fully informed -- through discussions at the Justice Advisory Council and other forums -- that the jail project would in fact move ahead regardless of whether the ballot issue succeeded or failed.

Vague specifics

Moreover, minutes from JAC meetings indicate no specific discussion of a controversial proposal to build a county courthouse expansion between the existing courthouse and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office building. The recently approved project has drawn criticism because it would destroy a pedestrian mall and block the view of Pikes Peak from the Pioneers Museum.

Several members of the Justice Advisory Committee have said the specific site was never talked about before commissioners announced the controversial location just after the Nov. 5 election -- even though the commissioners have insisted the site choice was also made clear through the committee.

"I think they said that it needed to be attached" to the existing courthouse, said Jim Null, a city councilman who serves on the committee, which includes representatives from the county government, cities within El Paso County, the 4th Judicial District, police and others who work with the justice system. But that, he said, was as specific as the discussion got.

Bus service threatened

The commissioners last week approved a 2003 county budget, slashing many county services to pay for a $38-million jail expansion, after voters overwhelmingly rejected the ballot proposal to raise taxes to pay for the project.

The County will finance the jail using Certificates of Participation, a mechanism that allows the County to go into debt without voter approval.

Budget cuts will come from the county's Health Department, the road and bridge fund, and the parks department. The commissioners also voted to eliminate subsidies for the Pikes Peak Center, the County Fair, the Penrose Equestrian Center and bus service provided by Colorado Springs Transit outside city limits.

On Tuesday, citizens packed the Colorado Springs City Council chambers to protest plans to possibly eliminate several bus routes. Members of the City Council, who already made cuts to the 2003 city budget, say it may not be possible to continue some of the routes without the county subsidy.

Recall on hold

Meanwhile, a citizens group that threatened a recall against two county commissioners last week says the recall effort is now on hold.

The Coalition to Change the Courthouse Site, formed to fight the proposed courthouse location, had announced in a news conference Friday that it would seek to recall Commission Chairman Tom Huffman and Commissioner Chuck Brown. But just an hour later, Huffman and Brown held their own news conference to announce they had worked out a possible compromise with City Councilman Null.

Null had proposed the expansion be moved to the south side of the existing courthouse, which could be possible if the city is willing to give up its right-of-way on Vermijo Street and close the street.

Huffman and Brown said they were excited about the concept, but some members of the City Council chastised Null, saying he had proposed the idea without discussing it with the council first. At a City Council meeting on Monday, members nevertheless seemed receptive to the proposal -- though they said it would be inappropriate to take a position on it before the County's development plans are brought to the City for formal review.

Harris, the county administrator, could not be reached for comment by press time.

In regard to the courthouse site, Huffman said he was not caving to public pressure by supporting the compromise proposed by Null.

"It's not a matter of public pressure," Huffman said. "It's a matter of an option being there that wasn't there before."

-- Terje Langeland


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