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Stevens Co. commissioner subject of recall effort over jail project

MORRIS - A group of Stevens County residents frustrated by their inability to get three commissioners to delay a building and renovation project apparently will attempt to stall the process themselves, and attempt to recall one of the commissioners.

The group is initiating a recall campaign against 5th District Commissioner Don Munsterman, according to a letter to the editor from resident Charlie Berg that is published in this edition of the Sun Tribune.

Berg also said Monday that the residents have retained attorneys to determine if there are legal options available to stop commissioners from voting Feb. 17 on the sale of bonds that will be used for construction of a new jail. The $15 million project also includes construction of a law enforcement center and the renovation of the courthouse.

The group has organized a public meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Morris National Guard Armory, and 5th District voters will be asked to sign a petition initiating a recall attempt of Munsterman, Berg stated.

Getting an injuction to stop the board's vote is the first priority, he said Monday.

"The recall (attempt) will come further down the line," he said.

Munsterman, who was elected to the board in 2006, said he learned of the recall efforts Monday afternoon and that he is surprised the group would go to that extent to derail the project and attempt to remove him from the board.

"It really is (a surprise)," Munsterman said. "It isn't something I ever dreamt of, especially when I'm doing what's right for this county."

The board of commissioners began researching jail and building options about five years ago, and voted 3-2 last summer to move ahead with the current plan. Munsterman and fellow commissioners Larry Sayre and Paul Watzke voted for the plan while retired commissioner Neal Hofland and current commissioner Herb Kloos voted against it. Since then, votes concerning the building project have broken along those same lines, with Hofland's successor, Ron Staples, voting with Kloos.

Public opposition, particularly to the jail portion of the project, surfaced late last year. Residents, with Berg acting as their most vocal representative, questioned the board's insistence on moving ahead when the economy is in a steep recession.

County residents in 2006 voted down a referendum to build a jail, and residents in opposition state that their analyses of statistics on county jail populations and the impact of increased taxes for building and operations show that the project is too costly and that the tax burden will fall to a great extent on owners of non-homestead farm land at a time when commodity prices are falling and input costs are rising.

The commissioners who voted for the project and continue to support it state that, first and foremost, public safety is their primary concern.

The county's two-cell jail was deemed unfit for use in the 1970s and since then the county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars transporting and housing its prisoners in other county jails while securing them by shackling them to a wall or in chairs in the courthouse.

Citing a growing concern with security and rising transportation and housing costs, the commissioners took up the issue of building a jail in 2004. They attempted to organize a regional jail plan with five surrounding counties, but those negotiations fell apart and then another plan to develop a two-county regional justice center operation with Pope County failed. The county in early 2008 chose to move forward with the current plan.

Commissioners supporting the plan say they understand a jail will cost a significant amount of money, but that state statute requires all counties to have jails and that courthouse security is an overriding concern. The global economic downturn is a worry, but a highly competitive bidding environment, favorable interest rates and a possible infusion of money from a federal stimulus package could make this a good time to build, they say.

Musterman, Sayre and Watzke have come under harsh criticism from opponents, Berg in particular. At an early meeting, he referred to them as "financial pygmies," and at a county board meeting last week he stated that the three commissioners should be the first inmates of a new jail because they are defrauding taxpayers.

Talk of a recall attempt had been floating around for several weeks, but Berg's statement in his letter that opponents would "try to eliminate Munsterman by recall in the weeks ahead" effectively made those efforts public.

Munsterman said he intends to attend Thursday's meeting to lay out his rationale for his vote.

"It's hard for me to understand," Munsterman said. "Many of the people who are getting all aroused over this issue, I've known them for many years and they know me for what I am."