Stevens, Pope optimistic about joint 'justice center'

While myriad obstacles lie ahead, the outlook for Stevens and Pope counties joining to build and operate a "judicial center" appears as optimistic as ever following a meeting between officials Wednesday in Morris.

While myriad obstacles lie ahead, the outlook for Stevens and Pope counties joining to build and operate a "judicial center" appears as optimistic as ever following a meeting between officials Wednesday in Morris.

"I like this setting we are involved in, and the communication is very open and candid," Pope County Board of Commissioners chair Dean Paulson said. "I strongly feel working with Stevens County is a major step in the right direction."

Both counties have been contemplating their jail needs for several years. Both counties joined with Big Stone and Traverse counties in regional jail discussions for much of 2005 before the talks died in early 2006.

Both Pope and Stevens counties continued jail planning on their own, and Stevens County voters rejected a referendum in November 2006 to commit $7 million to a 20-cell facility. Earlier this year, Pope County's jail task force completed its preliminary discussions and invited Stevens County to reopen talks about a joint project.

The renewed talks, however, are now calling for a more ambitious and potentially groundbreaking project consisting of combined courts, court administration, jail, dispatch services.


Cyrus has been talked about as a possible location for the judicial center.

The group agreed to meet each Wednesday for two hours, with the parties alternating meeting sites between Morris and Glenwood. The group will meet next July 11 at 9 a.m. in Glenwood.

Adding to the optimism were the personal opinions of Stevens County District Court Judge Gerald Seibel, who attended Wednesday's meeting.

Officials involved in the initial discussions indicated that the judicial system's opinions weighed heavily on the potential for the judicial center concept, saying that if the courts were not located where the prisoners would be incarcerated the proposal had little chance to succeed.

On Wednesday, Seibel said that, indeed, bringing his court and that of Pope County District Judge Jon Stafsholt to one location was one of his personal "pre-conditions" for the proposed judicial center. Seibel's other caveat was, surprisingly, for the county to tell him what it wanted to do.

"Tell us what you want," Seibel said, adding with a laugh that circumstances usually involve judges telling county representatives what they can and can't do.

"We want this to be driven from the local area," Seibel said.

Seibel said he has talked to Stafsholt briefly about the fledgling proposal but not in detail, nor did Stafsholt reveal any opinion about it.


Contacted after the meeting, Stafsholt said he has not yet been briefed about the proposal and wanted to wait to comment about the idea until after he more information.

Seibel noted that Minnesota statutes requiring that judges be seated in Montevideo, Willmar and Morris would have to be addressed, as would the Minnesota Judicial Council, of which Seibel is a member.

The Judicial Council is the administrative policy-making authority for the Minnesota Judicial Branch. The council monitors the court system and its role as a branch of government.

Stevens and Pope counties are in the 8th Judicial District, a 13-county district that has 11 sitting judges in nine counties.

Seibel sounded another note of optimism, saying that he believed the idea would be one the Judicial Council would endorse since it ostensibly will consolidate services and could be more cost-effective.

To the Judicial Council, the justice center "might be a good experiment to further expand this idea," Seibel said. "...I'll do what I can do to make it work."

Stevens County's board is not unanimously behind any jail or justice center proposal, although commissioner Herb Kloos said Wednesday that "I've always said that a regional jail is the way to go."

Stevens County board chair Paul Watzke said, "working with Pope County is the optimal situation."


The Pope County commissioners at Tuesday's meeting said they were confident that a joint venture with Stevens County was unanimously, if unofficially, the stance of their board.

The group spent time discussing funding, with Stevens County Attorney Charles Glasrud suggesting that the proposal's innovation might lend itself to grant opportunities.

Seibel noted that the 2008 session of the Legislature is intended to address bonding, and that lawmakers might be enticed to supply funding because "it would be the first of its kind in the state."

Stevens County Coordinator Jim Thoreen noted, however, that bonding requests for 2008 were already being submitted. The late Dallas Sams, then District 11 Senator, told the four-county regional jail group two years ago that any joint jail project would be viewed favorably by the state, but that proposals would have to be nearing the final planning stages and be comprehensive to warrant serious bonding consideration, especially if the request came in close to the start of the session.

The two sheriffs -- Stevens County's Randy Willis and Pope County's Tom Larson -- both expressed support for the justice center idea, and both stated they had a long-standing relationship that would make compromise possible.

Larson also said he had received a letter and comments from Cyrus residents who are eager to work with the counties on the proposal.

The group rounded out the meeting by agreeing to dust off a memo of understanding that they has approved for the joint jail talks. The group also listed a number of requirements that it could present to a consultant to determine what the overall costs to build and operate a facility would be.

Earlier in the meeting, Watzke said the consensus of the Stevens County board was that there would be "reluctance" to move ahead with a joint facility if Douglas County were included in the mix.


Pope County officials stated that it was still in discussions with Douglas County about being part of the planning. The Pope County contingent is meeting with Douglas County June 27 about jail and law enforcement needs.

However, Paulson and fellow Pope County Commissioner Jeanne Olson said they were not as comfortable with the planning taking place with Douglas County, which has been struggling -- sometimes contentiously -- for sometime about building a new jail.

Paulson termed it "major dissension," and Olson said it wasn't clear if Douglas County representatives were willing to move ahead with a joint facility if it were not located in Douglas County.

Larson stated that Douglas County was looking strictly at a jail, not an all-encompassing law enforcement center. As such, Douglas County might go along with having a jail in another location if all it needed was to "warehouse" prisoners.

Paulson said he would entertain Douglas County's ideas, but not at the expense of a more promising situation unfolding with Stevens County.

"I would really like this (the Pope-Stevens talks) to stay on track," Paulson said. "What I'd say to Douglas County is, 'If you want to be part of that, that's OK. But we want to stay on track with Stevens County.' "

Attending Wednesday's meeting were Stevens County board chair Paul Watzke and commissioners, Herb Kloos, Neal Hofland and Don Munsterman, Glasrud, Thoreen, Willis and Sheriff's Office Administrative Assistant Ann Vipond, Seibel, Pope County Attorney Belvin Doebbert, Pope County Coordinator Riaz Aziz, Paulson, Olson and Larson.

What To Read Next
Get Local