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UPDATE -- Panel selected to review county building project

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

An 11-person committee has been established to review the Stevens County building and renovation project that includes a controversial jail.

The county board met Wednesday to continue a meeting it recessed last week to form the committee, which consists of three members of a taxpayers committee, three at-large members selected by the county board, and the five county commissioners.

Forming the committee was part of a proposal approved by the board last week to delay for 90 days the sale of $9.85 million in jail bonds for the $15 million jail, law enforcement center and courthouse renovation project.

The committee is planning to meet weekly over the next 11 weeks to review the history of the county's building planning and discuss possible alternatives to the current plan. The resolution calling for the delay also stated that a report from the committee would need to be submitted to the county board by May 15.

The committee will meet for the first time at noon, Wednesday, March 4, at the courthouse.

The Stevens County Taxpayers Committee named Jack Lampert, of Eldorado Township, Lu Rohloff, of Hancock, and Jerry Lesmeister, of Morris as its three representatives.

Four of the five commissioners submitted 11 names for a three-person at-large panel and voted to seat Sheldon Giese, of Morris, Jeanne Ennen, of Donnelly, and Neal Hofland, of Chokio. Giese is Morris' mayor and Hofland is a former county commissioner.

The board voted unanimously to hire Deborah Hengel, a professional facilitator and consultant from Elbow Lake, to facilitate the meetings.

The board chose to vote on its choices for the committee, and the votes varied.

Commissioners Ron Staples and Herb Kloos, who oppose the current plan, voted against including Giese on the panel.

Commissioner Don Munsterman voted against Ennen's inclusion, and Munsterman and Commissioner Paul Watzke voted against the nomination of Hofland, who was on the board and voted, along with Kloos, against the project in July 2008.

Commissioner Larry Sayre, who joined Watzke and Munsterman voting for the project, cast yes votes for Ennen and Hofland.

Watzke said after the committee was formed that he was uncomfortable with the at-large selections, saying Morris was not adequately represented.

"I fully respect all the names up there (on the list) but I think it needs to be balanced better than this," Watzke said.

Munsterman also didn't appear pleased, saying that when he contacted his nominees about their interest in serving on the committee, he didn't ask them if they were for or against the project.

"I didn't think it would be stacked up like this," he said.

But all three at-large committee members said they were committed to serving with open minds.

Ennen said she agreed to be a nominee for the committee because she wanted to study more of the facts and figures and make an informed decision about the project. She said her work on the committee won't be based on whether she is for or against the project, and she approved of the make-up of the membership.

"I think they did a really good job getting a diverse group of people from around the county," Ennen said.

Giese said he isn't leaning one way, for or against, regarding the county's project. He isn't sure what the tasks the committee members will be given but that he'll do what's needed.

"Whatever I'm asked to do, I'll do it with an open mind," Giese said. "But I have to keep in mind that I represent the City of Morris and I'll do what I can to represent what's best for the city."

Hofland said that, while he voted against the project, he will enter the committee process with an open mind about its role and how it will proceed in the coming weeks. He also said the meetings will give him a chance to update himself on information about the project.

Staples said at Wednesday's meeting that he believes the at-large members would take an open and honest view of the process.

"They're all adults and knowledgeable people," Staples said. "What we're after is a solution, not a 'for or against' "

The commissioners and some members of the taxpayers committee then discussed the process of managing the 11-member panel.

With Hengel in place, the committee has a facilitator so that Sayre, the board's chairman, can participate without the responsibility of facilitating the meetings. A recorder also will be assigned to take meeting minutes, and the panel will work out in its first meetings how it will handle the information the county already has on the project and how to utilize the expertise of the project architect, project manager and possibly the Department of Corrections and representatives of other counties that recently built jails.

The process will move quickly and a lot of information will be reviewed in a short time, Munsterman said. But the taxpayers committee and the board also reached a consensus that they did not need to name alternate members as insurance against absences and schedule conflicts.

Commissioners noted that the project, which was approved in July 2008, already is in the final stages of design and development, and that bids are expected in May.