Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Voters may decide on move

Ballot possible on Fairfield's justice center

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FAIRFIELD - Voters might have final say over whether this Butler County city's justice center is relocated near their new downtown.

In a surprise move this month, City Council narrowly voted to move the justice center from Ohio 4 to a city-owned piece of property just outside Village Green.

At the time, council members who voted for the relocation cited financial and other reasons for their quick decision, saying it was done in an attempt to stop spending money studying the issue.

But now, some concede it has sparked a controversy.

"We've made our decision, but there's nothing wrong with having the public affirm our decision," Councilman Mark Scharringhausen said. "If it's something the voters support, then fine. If they don't, better to find out now than wait and let this continue to be a brewing controversy."

If the matter goes for a vote this fall, it would be the first time since Fairfield adopted a charter form of government in 1979 that council has put an issue on the ballot not required to be there by law, he said.

It would require five votes from the seven-member council to place it on the ballot.

The issue ultimately could wind up going to voters anyway - through public referendum - if the council does not put it there first.

Councilman Howard Dirksen suggested at Monday evening's council meeting that the public should decide the justice center location.

Dirksen said he is hopeful council will adopt his proposal - which Scharringhausen also made this month - in a formal ordinance and place the issue on the November ballot at the next council meeting, May 27.

"I was left with no alternative but to move that we go to the public and get their input since they were largely cut out of the process," he said.

On May 5, council abruptly voted during a work session to move the justice center to an 8.5-acre parcel that used to hold a Kroger shopping plaza at Pleasant Avenue and Wessel Drive.

The city must expand the current justice center soon. Quarters have grown so cramped, 45 male officers must share a single restroom and citizens sometimes must be interviewed in the parking lot for privacy.

Fairfield needs about 5.5 acres for the justice center. The rest of the land will be considered for office/retail development.

But the decision upset some residents and three council members, including Dirksen, because the council was studying seven possible sites for the center and had set a Sept. 1 deadline.

Taking the issue to voters now, Dirksen stressed, will not interfere with construction of the new, $10 million justice center, which isn't scheduled to begin until 2005.

Dirksen worries that placing the justice center so close to the new downtown will have a chilling effect on development there.

The community center, named Fairfield Community Arts Center this week, is expected to break ground in Village Green by summer's end and should open by early 2005.

Mayor Erick Cook, however, recently said most residents he spoke to expressed exasperation that the issue was dragging on.

"They said, 'Make a decision,' " Cook said.

E-mail jedwards@enquirer .com.

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