Originally Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2013, 7:36 pm
Last Updated: Jan. 16, 2013, 8:41 pm

Judges' report on courthouse forces county board's hand

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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Jeffrey O'Connor used a closed-door session of the Rock Island County Board this week to urge board members to call a referendum that could create a way to pay for a new courthouse.

The Tuesday meeting was closed to the public under an Illinois Open Meetings Act exemption that allows secret sessions to discuss possible litigation against the county.

After the executive session, the board called a referendum for April 9 that will ask voters if they support expanding the authority of the Rock Island County Public Building Commission, which would allow it to issue bonds to pay for a new courthouse.

The "possible litigation" discussed during the closed session was said to be a threat by the circuit judges to sue the county, demanding that it call the referendum.

Judge O'Connor also has sent a report to Rock Island County Board Chairman Phil Banaszek. Compiled by a group of Rock Island County judges, it says Judge O'Connor has the authority to compel the county board to build a new courthouse if financing can be found.

The public building commission was created in the 1980s to issue bonds to pay for a new county jail. It also paid for a jail addition built several years later. The county pays rent on the buildings until the bonds are retired.

If voters agree to expand the commission's powers, it could borrow money to build a new courthouse.The county board could then vote to build a new courthouse. If they chose not to do so, Judge O'Connor would have grounds to compel them into action, according to the report by the local judges.

A 1992 report by a committee of the Illinois Judges Association recommended the courthouse be closed as a court facility, but pressure from judges failed to produce action from the county board.

By establishing the Illinois 14th CircuitCircuit Court Facilities Committee,Judge O'Connor set in motion a legal process to compel the county to correct the problems with the courthouse.

The committee's report on problems with the courthouse states that, if the county board "continues to decline remedial action," the next step "is litigation and a public hearing presided over by the chief judge."

Judge O'Connor, as chief judge, would then have the authority, if he finds "exigent circumstances," to order closure of the "present court facilities and order the construction of a new or remodeled court facility," the facilities committee report states.

Those circumstances, in the form of deteriorating building conditions that pose a risk to the safety of staff and the public, already exist, according to the judges.

"Grounds exist for the chief judge to order construction of replacement court facilities," the report found.

The facilities committee report was authored by Judges Greg Chickris, Frank Fuhr, Mark Vandewiele and Richard Zimmer.They state that it is "neither practical nor feasible to remodel the present Rock Island County Courthouse.

"Facility conditions have deteriorated to the point that they are jeopardizing the court's ability to administer justice in this county and placing the health and safety of the public and staff at risk," the report states.

Rock Island County Board member Don Johnston, D-Moline, said the judges had formed a plan to sue the county to hold the referendum. By voting to put a question on the April 9 ballot, the board deflected the litigation threat, Mr. Johnston said.

The referendum question will simply ask voters if they support expanding the powers of the building commission.

Mr. Johnston insisted any proposal to build a new courthouse or remodel the existing structure would still require approval by the county board.

"The judges can't just say: Build this," Mr. Johnston said.

Mr. Banaszek said the judges wanted to avoid taking legal action and that's why they asked the county board to approve the April referendum.However, the facilities commission report made it clear the judges believe "unless forced to act, the county board will continue to defer action on what it perceives as a politically controversial and unpopular opinion."

Most of the county's major building upgrades over the past 30 years have been the result of some legal action.

The 1985 county jail was built after a federal judge ordered the old one closed due to poor conditions. In 2001, the new Justice Center was built after a federal judge ordered that prisoners could no longer be forced to sleep on the ground. The county built Hope Creek Care Center after the state ordered facility upgrades or closure of Oak Glen Nursing Home.

A site for a new courthouse has not been determined. But in their report, the judges recommend that any new courthouse be "physically tied" to the Rock Island County Justice Center, which would keep the building in downtown Rock Island.