Johnson County courthouse and jail dominate 2 races

Candidates sound off on issues

Janet Lyness
Janet Lyness

By Gregg Hennigan, The Gazette

IOWA CITY — Of all the issues confronting Johnson County leaders, one has been dominant for years and will continue to be in the foreseeable future: What to do about the county’s jail and courthouse needs?

That holds true for the June 3 primary, even though a major part of that question may be answered before any of the terms of the people elected start in 2015.

Four Democrats and one Republican are seeking party nominations for county Board of Supervisors seats in the primary. Two Democrats are running for county attorney.

The Democratic supervisor candidates are incumbent Janelle Rettig and challengers Diane Dunlap, Lisa Green-Douglass and Mike Carberry. Republican Supervisor John Etheredge is seeking re-election.

Running for county attorney are incumbent Janet Lyness and challenger John Zimmerman.

The two supervisor candidates and one county attorney hopeful in each party with the most votes in the primary will be on the ballot in the November general election.

Also in November, voters are expected to have a chance to vote on a funding plan for a $30.8 million, 72,000-square-foot courthouse annex to be built next to the courthouse.

It would be the fourth time in 14 years county voters have been presented with a plan related to the courthouse or jail. Officials say the buildings are overcrowded and unsafe.

In 2000, a bond issue to pay for a new jail failed, as did plans for a justice center with jail and courthouse space in 2012 and 2013.

So the courthouse issue may be answered the same day two people are elected county supervisor and another county attorney. But finishing the courthouse annex project, if it’s approved, and determining a long-term solution to the jail will be on the newly elected officials’ plates.

The following are the views of each candidate on the courthouse and jail and other issues.

County Supervisor

Q. What should be done about the courthouse and jail?

RETTIG: Supports the courthouse annex and believes splitting off the courthouse project from the jail is the only way to get voter approval. Adding courtrooms could speed up the legal process and lower the jail population, she said. Supports making improvements to the jail for immediate needs.

DUNLAP: Believes the supervisors came back too soon for another vote after the failed 2012 bond referendum and wasted taxpayer money. She supports splitting the courthouse and jail projects but believes the courthouse annex should be downsized to get closer to $25 million.

GREEN-DOUGLASS: Said there are serious safety concerns at the jail and courthouse. Believes separating the two projects will at least get the courthouse approved by voters. After reviewing the inmate roster, she does not buy the argument from jail opponents that the facility is filled with college students accused of relatively minor crimes.

CARBERRY: Believes the county has courthouse and jail needs but the public has spoken twice on the justice center idea. Said the courthouse deficiencies are more pressing and driving some of the overcrowding at the jail, so he supports the courthouse annex but would like to see whether the cost can be trimmed.

ETHEREDGE: Supports a vote on a courthouse annex but wants to ensure the price is right and would lean toward a smaller project with the ability to expand later. The jail discussion does not end and some upgrades need to be made soon, he said.

Q. What’s your view on tax increment financing, an economic development tool that some local government officials and community members say has been abused by cities?

RETTIG: Believes TIF is a good way for local governments to promote development but problems arise when TIF is overused and there are no limits on use. As cities face budget crunches, she believes cities will use TIF more.

DUNLAP: Wants more regulation on how tax increment financing can be used. Thinks projects that receive it should have a public benefit. She cited downtown Iowa City high-rise buildings that have received TIFs as projects that are nice but not something most people will use or can afford to live in.

GREEN-DOUGLASS: Said TIF is a great way to revitalize an area or bring new businesses to a community but believes it should be incumbent on a developer to prove that the project cannot be done without the financial help. A project also should meet some sort of need for the community. TIFs should sunset after 10 years, she said.

CARBERRY: Said TIF is a good economic development tool if used correctly but it’s been overused at times. He wants to see it more in blighted areas rather than for public projects that will never be on the tax rolls. Also wants sunsets limiting how long a TIF deal can be in effect.

ETHEREDGE: Understands why cities use TIF but said it hurts the county’s budget because the new taxes on a property are withheld during the period the agreement is in effect. He wants more communication with cities on their plans so the county can be prepared.

Q. What are your thoughts on the creation of a community identification card, which could be used by people, including undocumented immigrants, instead of a driver’s license or other common forms of ID?

RETTIG: Thinks it’s a great idea and wants Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty on board. The biggest outstanding question is startup costs, but she believes there may be an opportunity to get a grant to help with that.

DUNLAP: Said she can see the positives of a community ID as a way to help people access certain services, get a bank account and be more willing to contact law enforcement. But her concern is who is going to pay for the program and what governmental department will oversee it.

GREEN-DOUGLASS: Thinks it’s a good idea and would make the most sense to do it countywide. Said it would let more people be involved in the community, including immigrants, the elderly and teenagers without other ID.

CARBERRY: Says it’s a terrific idea that would build security and community in Johnson County. He would want low-income people to have the opportunity to get an ID for free.

ETHEREDGE: Is not opposed to researching the idea, but the biggest question for him is the cost. Who’s going to pay for it? What’s the process going to be to verify people requesting an ID are who they say they are?


Q. Do you believe there is a problem with racial minorities being disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and, if so, what would you do about it?

LYNESS: It’s a problem nationwide and here that needs to be addressed. For the past several years the county has focused on juvenile cases to keep minors from ending up in the court system as adults. Some programs have been developed to decrease the disparity between whites and children of color, but it’s something that needs to continue to be worked on, including with adults.

ZIMMERMAN: Alarmed by the stories he hears and the data he’s seen on people of color seemingly treated differently in the local criminal justice system. Believes black people are searched more than whites by law enforcement officers, which contributes to the problem. Vowed to review all charges brought to his office for potential racial bias.

Q. What should be done about the courthouse and jail?

LYNESS: After twice failing to get approval for the justice center, she supports an alternative approach, and that’s the courthouse annex. Said the county needs more judges to handle caseloads, but there are not enough courtrooms. The courthouse also has safety issues, she said. The jail has ongoing needs, and the immediate fixes the county is pursing are not a long-term solution, she said.

ZIMMERMAN: Supports courthouse expansion. Said there is a need for private meeting space — attorneys must speak with clients in public hallways now — and for safety improvements. Said the jail is “dilapidated” and he supports renovating or replacing it, but not increasing its capacity. Believes too many low-income people who cannot make bail are held. Wants more inmate-friendly features, like the ability to be outdoors.

Q. Should people be prosecuted for marijuana possession?

LYNESS: Believes the job of county attorney is to prosecute the crimes lawmakers put on the books. She said marijuana possession is a small percentage of her office’s cases and not a priority. She also started a program that lets many people charged with marijuana possession take classes and get the charge dismissed.

ZIMMERMAN: Would not prosecute people for possessing marijuana for personal use. Said the charge is enforced in a racially discriminatory way, and it hurts the relationship between people of color and police. He believes not prosecuting it would be an incentive for police not to search people of color as often.

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