Three separate incidents in the past week spurred a lengthy discussion regarding security concerns in the district court at Monday's Harvey County Commission meeting.
In all three instances, a law enforcement presence was provided by the sheriff's office. While Judge Joe Dickinson was grateful for that support, which continued through the week, all three scenarios brought to light some very pressing needs.
"We can't just float along like we have. Right now, we have virtually no security," Dickinson said.
Projects, like installing protective barriers, have been approved in future capital improvement plans and county administrator Anthony Swartzendruber did note the district court will be receiving panic buttons in the near future, but discussion has been ongoing between administration, the sheriff's office, emergency management and the court about what can be done to provide greater immediate security.
District Court Administrator Jennifer Foster spoke to the threats seen on a daily basis, with the number of critical incident reports increasing over the last few years (and more going unreported in terms of any official filings). Following a 2007 vulnerability assessment, a number of recommendations were given to the commission, but only a few minor adjustments to court security were made.
More specific action from the court has been held off while waiting to address security measures in the courthouse as a whole, something Foster knows is a concern, but the most recent disturbances have highlighted the court's vulnerabilities in particular.
"I'm at the position where I feel our employees need to feel safe. Our employees need to know that we're doing something for them, and they should come to work and not worry about that," Foster said. "We have had a multitude in court services of knives, boxcutters and other types of weapons come into the office."
Foster admitted many of those weapons are caught and checked in before individuals enter district court, but the events of the past week have raised red flags and heightened concerns about those very real threats. Multiple physical altercations at trials (both with court staff and defendants' counsel) have brought these security issues to a head, as well as a court clerk's life being threatened during the handling of a traffic ticket payment.
As it stands, Dickinson noted the only real security measures tied to the court are a separate lobby and protective barrier in the county attorney's office. Swartzendruber noted administration is also working to set up another meeting with Homeland Security to get an updated vulnerability assessment.
Commending the commission for being very forward thinking overall, Dickinson did note he was concerned about being "behind the curve" in terms of security, noting law officers from other counties have remarked, shockingly, about Harvey County's lack thereof.
Finding the necessary funding was of concern to the commissioners, but most were in agreement that some immediate action needs to be taken.
"Nobody should have to go to work fearful for their life. We need to do something; I just don't know what the answer is right now," said commissioner Randy Hague. "The low mill levy isn't worth it if we're putting people at risk."
Treasurer Rebecca Fields spoke of a issue similar to that of the district court clerk in her own office, where staff felt threatened, bringing the discussion back to heightened security throughout the courthouse — whether through proposed metal detectors at the front doors or other measures.
Having a vulnerability assessment will gave a better idea of what specific deterrents are needed, according to assistant county administrator Dan Bronson, though Dickinson was wary of waiting that long. For the time being, it was noted a detention deputy from the sheriff's office will be utilized to provide security in the district court on a daily basis (with the lone cost being overtime pay) as administration continues to assess the entirety of security needs in the courthouse.
"The rest of this needs to be done in a permanent approach," Swartzendruber said.
In other business, the county commission:
Suggested holding an open house for the sheriff's office and 911 Communications Center at the same time the Police Building Committee is holding an open house for the Newton Police Department so citizens can compare and contrast the various areas of the building.
Questioned Harvey County's placement on the list of sanctuary counties and asked Sheriff Chad Gay to look into the criteria that earned Harvey County that title and what it would take to change that.
Was introduced to Kyle McCaskey, who was hired as the special projects coordinator and public information officer for the county.
Heard a report on it being National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week and thanked the 911 operators in Harvey County for their service. Communications Director Don Gruver also informed the commission he nominated his entire staff for the Team of the Year Award at the Kansas Association of Public Communications Officials Conference being held this week.
Learned more about the court case regarding responsibility for township signs, with the bill addressing it still in legislature. The Kansas Association of Counties is recommending continuing current practices until the legislative session ends. Commissioner Chip Westfall asked to see the corrective language in the court case to get a better understanding of the potential changes, though counsel Greg Nye noted the responsibility would be a discretionary function of the county and it would not be required to do anything regarding township signs.
Sedgwick Township trustee Dan Andrew spoke on the signage issue, as well as the 40-acre rule and how that affects the funds for maintenance of townships' signs and roads. Andrew noted the neighboring township to the south has double the funds (because of more housing-generated revenue), while his township roads have to "endure." Andrew asked the commission for clarity on both issues, more than anything because of the budgetary strain with limited funds.
Was notified of a joint meeting with the Newton City Commission tentatively scheduled for 3 to 5 p.m. May 3.
Approved a bid with Cornejo and Sons for hot mix asphalt, with a base bid totaling $845,602.75 and base bid plus of $975,592.75, while also accepting the bid from Dustrol ($402,220) for hot in place recycling. Both were the lowest bids received and given the green light pending final engineering review.
Approved a bid from Van Diest totaling $14,882.19 for Noxious Weed chemicals. It was the lowest of four bids received.
Discussed plans for an archery range at East Park, stemming from a 3D shoot held at the park last year. Interested parties have volunteered to donate the necessary materials and the department has identified a potential location. Questions remain about insurance coverage, however, with the county looking into multiple options, as well as how and when the range would be operated.