January marks a new start for Multnomah County commissioners, and one of the first items on their to-do list must be a decision to press forward on an East County justice center.

East County citizens have waited decades to receive equal access to justice. Right now, residents of this area must travel to downtown Portland to deal with civil matters. But with 200,000 people living east of 122nd Avenue - and with ever-worsening traffic congestion making a trip to Portland more than a minor hassle - it's well past time to provide courtrooms in a more convenient location.

The argument in favor of an east metro justice center has been solid for years, but the momentum to get it done has never been strong enough to overcome the inertia produced by county politics. That should change, however, when incoming county Chairman Ted Wheeler takes office in January along with another new commissioner, Jeff Cogen of North Portland.

County, city can work together

Wheeler supported an East County Justice center during his election campaign, and he also ran on a promise that he would be a unifying force among commissioners - someone who would gain consensus to move projects forward.

The East County justice facility will be one of Wheeler's first tests. But he is not without partners, and he certainly is not without community support. The city of Gresham has pledged to move its Rockwood police precinct into a justice center, assuming that Rockwood remains the preferred location for the center. In addition, the Multnomah County sheriff's office and the county district attorney's office plan to have personnel located in the justice center.

All told, the justice center could bring as many as 200 police and judicial employees into the heart of Rockwood - which would be an economic stimulus to businesses in the area. The center also could establish an even larger public-safety presence in Rockwood. As county Commissioner Lonnie Roberts notes, criminals prefer to avoid judges, lawyers and cops, and all of those professions will be highly evident in Rockwood if the justice center is built there.

Funding for the justice center is not a major concern. The county would use money generated from the sale of surplus property, including land it owns in Troutdale, to pay the $16 million construction costs.

Center would improve Rockwood

With incoming Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis providing an unequivocal endorsement of the justice center and a stated preference for a Rockwood location, the county ought to be reassured of the city's intention to contribute urban-renewal dollars and be a full participant.

At present, the leading site for this project appears to be the old Fred Meyer Garden Center on Stark Street. Gresham resident Fred Bruning, who headed a citizens committee that studied several potential sites, says the Rockwood location rose to the top because the committee believed a justice center could have a transforming effect on the community. In Bruning's view, the county's investment in Rockwood would multiply as businesses begin to invest in a community that they perceive as safer.

While we acknowledge that several credible Rockwood citizens have voiced concerns about a justice center in their neighborhood, we are persuaded by Bruning's logic and also by the fact that the county courtrooms would be used for civil - not criminal - matters. The four courtrooms, which could be expanded to six, would be a community asset and not a place for criminals awaiting trial to congregate.

Discussion of an East County justice center has consumed dozens of years and produced dozens of dust-gathering studies. It's always easier to find reasons to delay than it is to press ahead and get this project done.

We urge all county commissioners to recognize the need and make the justice center a high priority for the coming year.

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