Editorial: County is being too aggressive in lawsuit with Justice Matters

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

There are plenty of business people who would salivate at the prospect of forcing government to pay for cost overruns every time a confusing government regulation adds expense to a business project.

Think of this example, which happens multiple times a year, even in our small community: A business applies for the necessary government planning approvals to construct a new building of some kind. A dispute arises between the business and the planning officials about what the regulations require. The project is delayed months while the dispute is appealed. During those months, the cost of the project increases.

The situation would be more tenable for businesses, if government gave some sort of guarantee that it would cover the additional costs if the business won the appeal. After all, it would be government’s misapplication of the regulation that caused the increased costs.

As any business executive can attest, you’ll have better luck finding a package of toilet paper on a grocery shelf than you will in finding such a guarantee at any government office.

But, when the shoe is on the other foot, it appears life is different at the Douglas County Courthouse. As the Journal-World has reported, Douglas County is seeking a large surety bond from the nonprofit, faith-based group Justice Matters. Why? Because Justice Matters is seeking a legal ruling on whether Douglas County is properly financing an expansion of the Douglas County Jail. Justice Matters thinks the regulations require a public vote. The Douglas County Commission thinks the regulations do not require such a vote.

The time it takes to get the legal ruling will add costs to the jail expansion, the county argues. So, if the county goes through the legal process and wins the case, it should receive the proceeds of the bond to help compensate for the increased construction costs. (At one point the county had proposed the bond be for about $3 million, but the latest legal filing left the amount unclear.)

County officials deserve some credit for being aggressive in protecting taxpayer dollars from unnecessary expense. Ultimately, though, their efforts are misguided. This idea of a surety bond is inequitable on too many levels to be good government.

The example above is one such inequity. The more problematic one, though, is such an action makes our justice system more inequitable. It creates a two-tiered system: Those who can afford to question the soundness of government and those who can’t. The high cost of attorney’s fees already create some inequities in this regard, but attorneys who do pro bono work help mitigate those problems. If governments adopt Douglas County’s position of requiring high-dollar bonds every time someone has the gumption to question whether government is following the law, then the inequity becomes much worse. Only the rich can question government to the fullest extent of the law.

The Douglas County Commission does not promote inequality. It is clear that is not the mindset of the commission, as a hallmark of the commission has been compassion and a genuine interest in social justice. Rather, it is likely the commission is just frustrated. The county and Justice Matters have gone back and forth over the jail issue for years.

If Justice Matters’ lawsuit truly is frivolous, hopefully our justice system works well enough to dismiss it quickly and thus keep added expenses to a minimum. But if it is not frivolous, it deserves to be heard, and done so without such a financial threat that comes off both as punitive and authoritarian. The county should drop its request for a surety bond.

While it may add expense to the jail project, the county should simply follow the advice it often gives the business from the example above: It is important that we do things right, and sometimes that takes time.

It is a cost of doing business. It surely should be a cost of doing good government as well.


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