Hey Big Spender

Written by Jeff Johnson on March 16, 2012. Posted in General

My Political Transformation

I occasionally get scolded by some of my colleagues on the county board for the positions I take.  This week, however, the scolding I received was of a totally new variety.  The positions I took on two separate issues were knocked as “big spending”, fiscally irresponsible positions by others on the board – a novel criticism for me up to this point.  One of the issues had to do with suburban court security measures in Hennepin County, and the other concerned state legislation turning the two county board-appointed positions on the Three Rivers Park Board into elected positions.

Court Security: Most court proceedings in Hennepin County take place downtown, either at the Government Center or our Juvenile Justice Center or Family Justice Center.  We do , however, maintain courts in three suburban locations, near Ridgedale, Southdale and Brookdale.  The courts at the ‘Dales tend to handle lower-level cases than those at our larger facilities.

A few months ago, a Hennepin County judge went public with his concerns that the suburban courtrooms do not require weapons screening.  The judge refused to preside any longer at the Brookdale court citing a fear for his safety.

All of our courtrooms downtown (excluding conciliation court) are weapons-screened facilities.

We have been discussing for several months the possibility of both temporary and permanent weapons screening at the suburban courts.  After having closed briefings and open committee debates on the topic, a resolution was before us on Tuesday which would install temporary weapons screening at the suburban court facilities (metal-detecting door frames and/or “wanding” of non-court personnel) and would instruct county administration to continue to research how best to deal with security issues at all of our courts permanently.  One permanent option would be to close down one or all of the suburban court locations and bring all cases downtown to secure facilities.  Another would be to purchase conveyor belt x-ray machines and permanently screen at some or all of the suburban locations.  Other options might also arise.

I supported the resolution to begin temporary screening until a decision is made later this year about how to respond to security on a permanent basis.  The resolution passed 4 – 3 (with Randy Johnson, Jan Callison and Gail Dorfman also voting in favor).

One of the reasons for opposition to the resolution was that even temporary screening is expensive – it could possibly cost over $600,000 to purchase equipment (which we could continue to use if we converted to permanent screening) and fund security personnel for the remainder of 2012.  One of my colleagues argued that it was irresponsible to move to temporary screening until we have further studied the permanent options, as there is little chance we will remove weapons screening once we start.

As always, I have a concern about spending (and welcome when my colleagues share that concern).  I am firmly convinced, however, that in this day and age, courtrooms have to be screened for weapons – whether they are in Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park, Minnetonka or Edina.  I don’t need further studies to come to that conclusion and am most comfortable implementing some form of screening as soon as possible.  I do appreciate getting more information and ideas regarding how we deal with this issue permanently and will be open to all options, including possibly closing some or all of the suburban courts.  It will come down to balancing convenience, access and security with cost to the taxpayers.

By the way, when it comes to a concern about spending, mine tends to be across-the-board.  I think we should scrutinize every spending area (including transit, housing, health, human services) and try to pass savings onto the taxpayer.  While I appreciate the cost concerns that some of my colleagues have about weapons screening, I’m doubtful that if we chose not to provide this additional security we would provide relief to the taxpayers – instead we’d simply spend the money elsewhere (and possibly on something I would find much less appropriate than security at the courthouse).

Three Rivers Park Elections:  Currently, the Three Rivers Park District, which funds and manages parks mostly in suburban Hennepin County, consists of 7 Commissioners.  Five of them are elected in districts and two of them are appointed at-large by the Hennepin County Board.  The Park District has levy authority and taxes the citizens of Hennepin County to pay for its projects.

Rep. Joyce Peppin introduced a bill in the Minnesota House this week removing our appointment authority and making all seven park commissioners elected positions.  A resolution before us at the county board meeting on Tuesday spoke in opposition to the Peppin bill.  The opposition resolution passed on a vote of 6 – 1.  I voted no.

My argument was simple: While I like having influence over the makeup of the park board, I strongly believe that government bodies having taxing authority should consist solely of elected officials.  My support of the Peppin bill was not intended to question the quality of those park board members the county board has appointed in the past – I suspect most or all of them did a fine job.  They were not, however, directly accountable to their constituents and I believe the system and the taxpayers would be much better served if they were.

One of my colleagues scolded me for supporting such a “big spender” bill that would surely lead to a property tax increase for my constituents.  The reasoning: Clearly the park board members appointed by the county board are more careful with our constituents’ money than those elected directly by those same constituents.  I assume my colleague’s comments must have been made partly in jest (at least I hope so), because the logic is … questionable.  Nonetheless, the resolution passed and I alone voted “no”.  We shall see whose position the legislature and Governor like better.

So, at least according to a couple of my fellow commissioners, this was the week I transformed myself from a cheapskate to a big-spender.  Hey, if it helps me fit in…

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