Listen, But Don’t Abdicate Responsibility

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

It was an imposing crowd for a public meeting in Swift County. Nearly 90 people packed into the commissioners’ meeting room in the basement of the Law Enforcement Center with some people standing in the hallway.

It was the goal of those at the Feb. 5 meeting to impress upon commissioners that the “will of the people” was set against the construction of a new justice center. It was the “will of the people” that they are included in new meetings to study the best solutions and costs for any new facility. It was a crowd full of righteous outrage.

Citizens angry with elected leaders who don’t follow their wishes when they show up in a crowd, or who let them know in face-to-face conversations that they aren’t happy with their decisions, is nothing new. Such confrontations have been going as long as citizens have elected fellow citizens to represent them on public bodies.

But do we really elect officials to collapse in the face of a public uprising? Do we want our leaders intimidated into making a wrong decision, or do we want them to have the courage to make tough, educated decisions?

British statesman Edmund Burke addressed the issue of satisfying a vocal constituency versus acting on conscience in a speech 245 years ago.

An elected official owes his constituents “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience,” he said in 1774. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

More recently, Lee Hamilton, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, said:  “Most members of Congress, I think, would agree with Burke. Their jobs, after all, consist - or, at least, ought to consist - of studying the issues before them, weighing the alternatives, and thinking through the consequences of each.

 “I know, from my own experience and that of others, that at the end of a career on Capitol Hill, a member feels proudest of those votes, speeches, and times he or she has acted according to conscience and done the right thing in the face of countervailing pressures.”

With its 3-2 decision to proceed with a $162,000 study for the possible construction of a $17.475 million justice center on the west side of the Swift County Courthouse last week, three commissioners voted in the face of significant and caustic citizen opposition.

For several years commissioners have known that the current sheriff’s office and jail are inadequate in size and design to handle the growing number of prisoners it houses and for efficient law enforcement operations.

Today it costs around $20,000 a month to house prisoners outside the county. Based on a professional study by a firm that specializes in researching community demographics, state and federal laws, and incarceration trends, commissioners have been told we are going to be sending even more money out of the county for prisoner boarding.

Sheriff John Holtz has given his input based on seeing first hand the growing number of prisoners he and his staff have to transport to jails not just in the immediate area, but sometimes hundreds of miles away. He has seen his staff time for investigating crimes reduced because deputies are on the road so often transporting prisoners.

Commissioners have studied the costs of operating human services, 6W Community Corrections, the county attorney’s office, Restorative Practices, the jail and sheriff’s office in separate locations. They have studied the safety, security, privacy, and operational needs of the facilities that house these operations.

After literally hundreds of hours of research Commissioners Pete Peterson, District 3-south Benson and Torning Township, Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton, and Eric Rudningen, District 5-Kerkhoven, are convinced that a new facility that houses all the above operations in one location is the most cost-effective solution.

However, all have said that if the costs for the building come in too high they will consider alternatives. They have also stressed that the study is just one more step in the process, not a final decision.

We hope the three commissioners will remain open-minded about the decision to house human services and the county attorney’s office in with law enforcement. Victims of physical and sexual abuse, as well as the victims of other crimes, feel anxiety when going to the same facility that holds their accused or convicted perpetrators, we have been told.

We really hate to see the historically correct1984-85 Law Enforcement Center put to the wrecking ball if there is a way to expand the current building. We’ve heard mixed messages on whether it can be added on to or not.

Commissioners do have to be sensitive to the facility’s price tag that will not only add a financial burden to farmers, but to local business owners and people on fixed incomes. Commissioner Peterson was right to ask for a cost analysis of expenses in housing, transporting and caring for inmates.

They say the new building is fiscally responsible in that it gives local county commissioners decision-making authority over our costs of operations rather than being at the mercy of commissioners in other counties and the rates they might set. It also preserves dispatch services in the county with dispatchers familiar with our geography – time is critical in emergency situations.

We position ourselves as a regional center, preserving current employment, and possibly bringing in new employees, if we build for the future, they argue.

In the end, commissioners must make a decision based on their in-depth study, professional advice, and citizen input. That decision may not please their constituents, but as Burke and Hamilton say, we elect representatives to make educated decisions, not to please a crowd.

Benson’s City Council is also facing a leadership moment as it looks to build on what economic development planner, “community therapist,” and futurist Doug Griffiths brought to the city this past November; more on that next week.

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