ANDALUSIA — Rock Island County board member J. Robert Westpfahl told people at an Anadalusia village board meeting Monday night that three county officials have had it out for the courthouse for a long time.
Five county board members, all Republicans, were in attendance at the standing-room-only meeting. A presentation from the group Preservation of the Historic 1896 RI County Courthouse was included on the agenda.
Drue Mielke, Rod Simmer, Richard Morthland, Ron Oelke and Westpfahl each expressed his opinions and frustrations with the way the courthouse situation has played out.
Mayor Curt Morrow offered his own solution to the courthouse issue, which drew laughs from the audience.
"Wouldn't it make sense to rehab the courthouse and get rid of that filthy dump of a county building across the street and tear it down?" Morrow said.
Developer Joe Lemon said one of the ideas was to mothball the courthouse, the county building and possibly both.
Morrow was quick to reply: "They have already been mothballed."
Westpfahl said he thought the courthouse should be mothballed, renovated one floor at a time and turned into county offices. He said there were issues with mold and malfunctioning elevators at the county building, among other issues.
"That's what is going to happen; they are going to put a green space over there, and I guarantee you as sure as s--- stinks in three to five years they are going to want to put a brand new office building over there, that's their goal." Westpfahl said. "(Rock Island State's Attorney John) McGehee, our sheriff (Gerry Bustos) and chief judge (Walter Braud) are the three people behind it. They want a big dome with their name on it."
Developer Joe Lemon said the county had never been willing to listen to offers to redevelop the courthouse.
Morthland said he had been against tearing down the courthouse from the beginning.
"You don't build a tremendous history by quitting on it," Morthland said. "Even though all five of the county board members here right now are Republicans, support for saving the county building is bipartisan; it is deeply bipartisan. It is about saving our future by saving our past."
Oelke said the judge went around the will of the voters and went about it in a backhanded way. He said that the building was in the hands of the Public Building Commission and was given to them via a resolution. He said there might yet be a way for the board to change that.
"I suppose the county board could try to put together another resolution, but the Public Building Commission would have to give it back to us," Oelke said. "I think it was ordained from the beginning that that courthouse was going to come down and a new building was going to go up. We tried to do something with it, and it didn't go anywhere."
Lemon said the county was going to get sued and the taxpayers were going to pay for the defense. He said trading the deed back to the county was just trading paper back and forth.
"Don't lose hope now," Lemon said. "Now is the time for you to do what the other side is doing; dig in your heels, take a principled position and lobby the people on your board to have the wisdom you have about this issue."
Simmer said the idea of doing something with the buildings was shot down six years ago when he first joined the board. He said Judge Braud had been a thorn in the side but he was "done" with the courthouse issue.
"If they want to do this and fight us and we lose, it's still coming down," Simmer said. "If they want to do this and they win, it's going to cost you, what did they say, $12 (million), $15 million, $21 million I have heard one time, whatever it's going to cost to fix it? After that it's going to cost another $10 million, whatever you want to spend on it, it's going to cost you, you decide as a group what you want to spend."
Simmer said the county was trying to be responsible, and the board was talking a lot more across the aisle and not as much of the "do as we damn well please" as in the past. However, he said that both sides concede that the county does not have the money to fix it.
"They decided to stop spending money on it back in 1958," Simmer said. "We are strung out — we are strung out far — and you know we are broke."