OREGON – Ogle County is not taking the recent vote by the Oregon City Council against closing a portion of Sixth Street for a proposed new jail as the final word on the matter.
At it's meeting July 18, the County Board agreed to send a formal letter to the city of Oregon seeking negotiations on closing the street.
Also, following a closed session, the board agreed to hire Montana & Welch, LLC, a Palos Heights, Ill., law firm that specializes in local government law. In a press release, the county said the firm was contacted a couple weeks ago to review possible legal remedies after several options were viewed to construct the new county jail without vacating Sixth Street, and it was determined that all options were more costly and provided less public safety than the original plan developed by the Long Range Planning Committee. In a separate interview, Ogle County Board Chairman Kim Gouker said the county does not want this to end up in court.
“That's why we're doing it the way we're doing it,” he said, adding that the hope is both sides can get together and come to an agreement.
But the county will take legal action if the city won't negotiate, he said.
“We have very strong legal standing,” Gouker said, adding that the firm the county hired specializes in local government law. “We could end up going through an expensive litigation and still getting there.”
Contacted the day after the meeting, Oregon Mayor Ken Williams said he has not yet seen the letter, and was unsure how the city would proceed.
“I don't know until I see what they have to say,” he said.
Williams and Terry Schuster and Kurt Wilson voted in favor of closing the street at the city's June 27 meeting, while commissioners Jim Barnes and Tom Izer voted against it.
For his part, Barnes had no comment when reached by phone.
The proposal has a new jail being built on county-owned land just west of the Judicial Center. The city approved zoning the property commercial. The jail would house between 180 to 200 prisoners and would cost a total of about $25 million.
The jail would be connected to the Judicial Center by a sallyport, which would necessitate the closure of Sixth Street. But with the city voting to not close the street, the county had to look at other options. The county said those options were more expensive and less safe.
“(We) started looking at viable options immediately following the June 27 council meeting, including moving the building footprint out of the Sixth Street right-of-way, reconfiguring it to fit within the necessary property setbacks, and even explored both a second story walkway for inmates over Sixth Street from the Jail to the Judicial Center, as well as a tunnel walkway under Sixth Street,” said Ogle County Long Range Planning Chairman Don Griffin in the release.
“The reconfiguration made the building more inefficient, and therefore more costly to operate. The above ground and underground walkways added $1.5 (million)to $2 million to the project cost, for a building that was more inefficient.” Gouker said the county has had a good relationship with the city, and pointed out that the majority of the council voted for the closure. He singled out Council Member Jim Barnes and his anti-jail rhetoric as the main problem.
“This is all a political gambit by a single council member who is sworn to do the best for all of their constituents,” Gouker said.
In the release, Gouker said said the city, for the most part, had been very fair and professional with the county during this process.
“Unfortunately, two of the City Council members chose to make their decisions prematurely, and for political reasons, rather than fulfilling their legal, fiduciary responsibilities to review this process objectively,” he said. “Those actions are what has brought us to this point where possible legal action may be the only solution. We started this process with a promise to be open and transparent, and this is just one more step to do the same. We will work as much as possible to avoid that kind of solution.” Gouker said the county is not threatening the city with legal action. He said the plan is to reach an agreement through discussions. He said the county is already losing time and he said the county hopes to avoid taking up more time and money in court – money that would come from taxpayers in the city and county.
“Court would be a nightmare, and it would be very long,” Gouker said. “Six months at least.”