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County's fight for downtown jail is futile, wasteful

Years from now, the names of the members of the 1990 Inverness City Council may have faded from memory. But the beautiful legacy they left for the residents of Citrus County will remain to remind everyone of the wisdom and forethought they displayed when they courageously voted to preserve the loveliness of downtown Inverness by rejecting the county's shortsighted decision to put a jail on the shores of Cooter Pond.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, council members Pete Kelly, A.

G. Gibbs, Walter W. Cannon and Vincent Scheer made clear that their vision of this quaint waterfront town does not include an eight-acre jail compound surrounded by unsightly 14-foot concrete block walls. And in reaffirming their vision for the county seat, these four council members listened to the heartfelt pleas of the black residents whose homes would be mowed down and lives uprooted to make way for this monstrosity. The fifth member, Leonard Giordano, was absent because of an injury, but he has publicly expressed his opposition to the site.

Out of the more than 100 people who packed the small council chamber, not a single person stood up to defend the idea, even though Council President Kelly repeatedly called for opinions from them. Instead, a steady stream of people came forth to list the very obvious reasons why the jail should not go downtown.

Most poignant were those of black residents who had signed a petition in opposition to the jail site and had come out in full force _ to the complete surprise of many longtime political observers _ to express their objection to the plan.

They asked, what of the elderly people who would be forced to move far away from their churches and grocery stores? These people depend on their neighbors to take care of them. Who will see after them if they are all scattered about the county?

Although the county staff, consultants and architects tried valiantly to put a good spin on the project _ at one point, architect Jim Roberson even promised to put a public nature trail around the base of the 14-foot concrete wall _ the outpouring of rage against the county decision continued from residents, each denunciation ending with rousing applause.

Finally, council member Cannon had heard enough. No use in delaying, he said. "I do not endorse in any form a jail being placed in downtown Inverness," he said. Said council member Gibbs: "I will not vote for it in no shape, form or fashion." And from council member Scheer: "I don't want to see anybody put out of a home because of a criminal."

It was obvious to everyone in the room that Citrus Sheriff Charles Dean had exaggerated when he claimed that the black residents who would be uprooted were eager to sell out and move. When reporters cornered Dean on Wednesday, in fact, he could recall only one or two property owners who had told him they would be willing to sell.

Kelly noted that while the people of the neighborhood had come out to oppose the idea, "those in favor went into the woodwork never to be seen."

The Inverness City Council's decision should have settled the matter and sent the county scurrying around looking for a new site.

But no.

On Wednesday, county commissioners, sputtering with anger, vowed to keep this pointless battle going, even though Inverness quite obviously holds all the cards and the clock is ticking on the court order to have a jail completed by October 1991.

Despite a letter from the Inverness council in December expressing opposition to the downtown jail, a visit to the County Commission from City Manager Bruce Banning reiterating that stance, a solid 4-0 "no" vote Tuesday and a plainly worded letter emphatically stating that the city never would go along with the downtown jail idea, Hank Cohen and Skip Hudson persuaded their fellow commissioners to vote to meet with Inverness officials for talks.

Talk about what? Inverness officials have time and again made it absolutely clear that they will not vote in favor of a downtown jail.

What commissioners should be doing is sitting down to examine alternative sites, giving the architects clear instructions and getting on with business.

Instead, they are fighting a dead fight and wasting untold amounts of taxpayers' money trying to please Sheriff Dean and a very few downtown business owners who have twisted a county jail project into some kind of preposterous downtown redevelopment project.

How the people most affected by the downtown jail feel about the plan was made movingly evident as the council voted.

As the last "no" vote was made inside council chambers, about a dozen black people joined hands in the council vestibule, bowed their heads in prayer and spoke joyful words of thanksgiving that their homes and their community had been saved.

If Citrus County residents allow the County Commission to spend their hard-earned tax dollars to pursue its heartless plan to raze this well-established neighborhood to make way for Fortress Inverness just to please Sheriff Dean and a few selfish downtown businesspeople, then heads all over the county should be bowed _ not in prayer, but in shame.