Voters divided on R.I. County Courthouse referendum

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A forum designed to answer the public’s questions about the Rock Island County Courthouse referendum turned heated Monday afternoon in Rock Island.

The courthouse’s problems are well-documented, including in a 2012 report that claimed conditions have deteriorated to the point that they are jeopardizing the court`s ability to administer justice and placing the health and safety of the public and staff at risk.

But while most attendees at Monday’s forum agreed changes need to be made, they strongly disagreed on how to go about them.

In April, voters will be able to check ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to expand the powers of the Public Building Commission, essentially giving the commission the power to decide how to update the courthouse. That’s power that some voters feel goes too far.

“My concern is an “open check” to the County Building Commission to do whatever the County Board says… When that happens, I’m done. There’ll be nothing else I can say about what they do with the money,” said Bill Long.

County Board Chairman Phil Banaszek said that won’t be the case. It’s why he’s formed an ad hoc committee to research the problem and make a final recommendation to the Board.

“Whether it’s one building, both buildings, consolidating them, keeping them downtown, moving them somewhere else… What’s most cost effective? It doesn’t give us a blank check,” said Banaszek.

But while some voters wish they could cast their vote to preserve the old buildings, that’s not a ballot option. April voters will have no say in how the upgrades are addressed.

“If they thought of rehabilitating it, or constructing, then I could probably vote for it. But there’s no choice in this,” said Rock Island voter Lorian Swanson.

It’s something that both Long and Banaszek agree most voters don’t understand.

“There’s so much misconception on what’s out there,” said Banaszek. He also added that if April’s referendum were to fail, it would be March 2014 before voters could again vote on a plan for the courthouse.

“Know the players, know what their part in it is, and know how it’s going to happen before you vote on this referendum,” said Long.