Incoming county leader takes a new look at East County facility

As Ted Wheeler prepares to take on his role as Chairman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 1, Gresham leaders must decide whether to include space for local police in a proposed eastside justice center.

The justice center - along with public safety, SUN school funding and emergency preparedness - is among the first issues Wheeler plans to tackle as chairman, he said Tuesday, Dec. 12.

While acknowledging the in-depth justice center process predating his administration, the new board of commissioners that takes effect in January needs a chance to fully discuss the issue, Wheeler said.

It's what Commissioner Lonnie Roberts has been counting on. Now that Jeff Cogan will replace Serena Cruz Walsh, a voting block that at times stymied the project has crumbled.

Initially, his fellow commissioners supported the justice center concept and even sold surplus county property to raise $16 million to fund it.

The county already needed to replace Gresham's outdated and outgrown one-courtroom courthouse on Powell Boulevard with a new circuit court, complete with four courtrooms and space for two more. Why not create a one-stop shop with courtrooms and sheriff's office space to replace East County's mold-infested Hansen Building, as well as a possible Gresham police office?

But in 2005, Cruz Walsh, who did not run for re-election, voted with Commissioners Lisa Naito and Maria Rojo de Steffey to shelve the idea in favor of a stand-alone courthouse in Gresham.

However, when faced with opposition from Rockwood residents clamoring for a justice center in their crime-ridden neighborhood, the three commissioners agreed in January to place the stand-alone courthouse on hold.

This spring, Rojo de Steffey switched gears, supporting Roberts' resolution allowing county facilities staffers to study possible justice center sites. However, heated debate among commissioners in July cut short the staff report on its findings.

Since then, controversial Chairwoman Diane Linn lost her re-election bid to Wheeler in May. Given the strained relationship between Linn and the so-called 'mean girls' - Naito, Cruz Walsh and Rojo de Steffey - Roberts' office now hopes that the new board of commissioners will be more amenable to making his dreams of a justice center a reality.

His patience appears to have paid off.

In mid January, Wheeler and the rest of the board plan to nail down the project's scope, such as whether Gresham police will participate.

'We have to really hammer out what specifically we are building,' Wheeler said. 'And I think we're very close on that, but I just feel like this new board has to have that conversation publicly. … I just want to respect the process.'

Next, the board must analyze possible sites before settling on a final location, possibly as soon as February. But whether the justice center includes space for Gresham police must be ironed out before a location can be addressed, Wheeler said.

'If there is a role for the Gresham police, now is really the time for the city of Gresham to express that and be articulate about what their specific interests and needs are,' Wheeler said.

Mayor-elect Shane Bemis said Gresham supports the justice center concept and that he personally prefers it be built in Rockwood. Not only would such a facility help stimulate economic development, but if located within the city's urban renewal district, Gresham could pitch in up to $2 million toward the project.

However, Bemis said he plans to poll the new council when it convenes in January.

A citizen-led committee in 2005 ranked five preferred locations with the Oregon Flea Market - previously home to G.I. Joe's and the Fred Meyer Center in the 18300 block of Southeast Stark Street in Rockwood - at the top of the list.

Roberts, who represents East County on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, has maintained that if sited in Rockwood, the justice center would lower crime rates, attract businesses and help kickstart revitalization efforts in the poverty stricken West Gresham neighborhood, all while providing a circuit court in Gresham as required by state law.

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