Voters won’t decide RICO courthouse question in March

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A last-minute effort to put a plan for a new Rock Island County courthouse on the March 2014 ballot failed Monday night, and Board Chairman Phil Banaszek said he's worried a lawsuit may now be coming.

Monday night's special meeting of the Rock Island County Board began with a warning from Jeffrey O'Connor, Chief Justice of the 14th Judicial District. O'Connor said legal action could come if a new courthouse is not built or if the old one is not rehabbed to meet Illinois Supreme Court standards.

"I want you to understand what it means to go through the lawsuit," said O'Connor. "The county cannot prevail in this lawsuit. There is no defense."

Earlier this year, an ad hoc committee recommended that a new courthouse be built next to the County Justice Center downtown. The committee wanted a referendum put on the March 2014 ballot, asking voters to expand the powers of the Public Building Commission so that it could issue up to $72 million in bonds for the courthouse's construction.

"Although $72 million is an expensive proposition, I think in the long run, it's going to be even more expensive for the taxpayers of Rock Island County if it goes to a lawsuit," said Chairman Banaszek.

Many board members, though, said now is not the time to ask for voter approval of a costly plan, and said they hope to prioritize the county's general fund instead.

"I would argue that the quarter-cent sales tax is what we should be focusing on right now," said member Scott Terry.

Earlier this month, the Board voted 16-8 against placing the courthouse referendum on the March ballot, and Monday night, the vote was unchanged. Ad hoc committee chair Kim Callaway-Thompson said she was disappointed in the result.

"It certainly doesn't make sense to me why we wouldn't put the question to the voters. But, you know, the decision has been made," said Callaway-Thompson.

Chief Justice O'Connor wouldn't say "if" or "when" a lawsuit was coming Monday: "I've got to get the right lawyer, the right counsel to set this thing up. It's just not a snap decision."

But while Banaszek said he's "absolutely concerned" about a lawsuit, board member Terry said he's not worried about it.

"If it's going to happen, it's going to happen," said Terry.

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