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Citrus to press Inverness to okay jail plan

Despite a City Council vote Tuesday night opposing a new jail downtown, the County Commission decided Wednesday to forge ahead and press the city to accept the facility. Commissioners voted to seek a joint meeting with the council to try to resolve the dispute. But Council President Pete Kelly said Wednesday that he does not want such a meeting.

"The city of Inverness doesn't have anything to gain out of this meeting," Kelly said. "We made a decision based upon the facts we were presented (Tuesday night). If we appear to be backing down, we lose credibility with our constituents.

"The way the council was adamant (Tuesday) night, I don't see them changing," he said.

Kelly said he would offer to come to the commission meeting next Tuesday to discuss the council's decision. "If they still desire (a joint meeting), then I will discuss it with the board and see if they want to do it," he said.

One by one Tuesday night, four members of the Inverness City Council announced that they would not approve comprehensive plan and zoning changes so that a 400-bed jail could be built north of the Sheriff's Operations Center on Cooter Pond. The fifth member of the council, Leonard Giordano, has said he too opposes the jail, but because of a back and leg injury was unable to attend the meeting.

A dozen homes in a predominantly black neighborhood would have to be demolished to accommodate the jail.

After many residents of the neighborhood showed their opposition, council member Walter Cannon said, "I do not endorse in any way, shape or form a jail being placed in downtown Inverness."

"To uproot those people would be an injustice," said council member A.

G. Gibbs. The county "is not going to be fair with the people."

"I don't want to see anybody put out of their home for the sake of a criminal," said council member Vincent Scheer.

Calling it the most disliked proposal to ever come before the council, Kelly said he too was against the idea. "I don't think the county can prove they can put this jail site into this concentrated area," he said. "It was spread around widely that these people wanted to sell their homes," but, he said, a petition signed by most of the homeowners proved that was not true.

After the vote, about a dozen of the neighborhood residents joined hands in a circle and praised Jesus.

The County Commission, under a court order to build a jail by October 1991, held an emergency meeting at noon Wednesday to review the city's decision.

"We need to sit down face to face with the City Council," said Commissioner Skip Hudson. Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the downtown location, he noted. "We need to say why we feel the way we did," he said, reiterating his position that it would be cheaper in the long run if the new jail were constructed near the existing jail downtown.

Hudson complained about the "biased press" writing about the people whose homes would be bought and razed to make way for the jail. "They've made a human interest story out of this thing," he said.

Sheriff Charles Dean continued Wednesday to speak in favor of the downtown site. Referring to the City Council's vote the night before, he said, "I think there is more emotion flowing here than common sense."

Commissioner Hank Cohen, who did not attend the City Council meeting Tuesday night, said Wednesday that, "I have not heard from one black person that they don't want (the jail)." He said he had heard "years ago that they were hoping that their homes would be considered for purchase" by the county.

Cohen said the City Council had not heard from the downtown business community, so he invited Walt Connors, a former county clerk who owns property downtown, to comment on the council meeting. "It was the most loaded meeting I've ever been to," Connors said. "It was cut and dried."

County Attorney Larry Haag said anyone could have spoken at the meeting. "You never raised your hand to speak," he said to Connors. "You sat in the corner and watched."

In a telephone interview, Kelly said he had asked at least four times Tuesday night for supporters of the downtown site to come forward. "There wasn't the first person _ underline it, italicize it to make it known that not the first person other than the two (county) staff members directed to be there _ spoke for that jail site to be there."

Business leaders, however, did speak at the commission meeting Wednesday. Robert Tessmer, chairman of the Inverness Downtown Development Committee, said the city needs the jail, in part because it would add 200 workers to the downtown area. "We need every employee we can in the downtown area for it to survive," he said.

Informed of the commission's vote Wednesday afternoon, council member Cannon said he thinks it would be fruitless to hold a joint meeting. "I will agree to meet with them if that's what they want, but I made my position very clear last night."

Cannon said he had not expected to vote on the issue Tuesday night, but added: "I felt that we would be doing the county a favor by telling them now, before you invest any more money, to accept our position that we aren't going to do the things that are necessary for you to build a jail."

Chronology of events

Oct. 10, 1989 _ In response to a lawsuit filed by the state Department of Corrections, Circuit Judge William Edwards orders Citrus to transform the county auditorium into a temporary jail and build a new permanent jail within two years.

Nov. 1 _ Architect recommends the new jail be built on county-owned land on County Road 491 in Lecanto.

Nov. 13 _ Correctional facilities committee recommends the jail be built in Lecanto or at the Citrus County Fairgrounds.

Nov. 14 _ County Commission decides against razing the Citrus County Speedway, which is at the fairgrounds, to make way for a jail. Decision virtually eliminates the fairgrounds from consideration.

Dec. 1 _ In a report to the county, architect recommends that the jail be built to house 400 inmates on a tract large enough for expansion to hold up to 1,500 people.

Dec. 4 _ Correctional facilities committee recommends the jail be built on the parking lot north of the Sheriff's Operations Center on Cooter Pond in downtown Inverness.

Dec. 5 _ Concerned about the homes that would have to be condemned if the jail were built downtown, County Attorney Larry Haag asks Judge Edwards to give the commission more time to choose a site. The judge pushes the deadline back two months, from Dec. 10 to Feb. 10. County Commission tentatively approves the Cooter Pond site, but asks its staff to continue looking for a better location in the Inverness area.

Feb. 2, 1990 _ In a report prepared for the County Commission, County Administrator Chris Chinault recommends the jail be built on a 20-acre spray field near the Inverness sewage treatment plant off U.S. 41.

Feb. 5 _ The correctional facilities committee, worried that inmates would sue over the odor of the treatment plant, endorses a plan to buy the Holden property about a mile south of the spray field.

Feb. 6 _ County Commission chooses the downtown site.

Feb. 20 _ The City Council votes 4-0 to inform county commissioners that they would not change the city comprehensive plan to allow a new jail in downtown Inverness.

Feb. 21 _ In an emergency meeting, the County Commission voted to request a joint meeting with the Inverness City Council to explain why the jail should be built downtown.