County Board discusses crafting marijuana use ordinance, attorney staffing, and construction oversight
Rhonda Silence

County Board discusses crafting marijuana use ordinance, attorney staffing, and construction oversight

The Cook County Board of Commissioners held their first regular meeting of 2024 on Jan. 9. On the agenda were the establishment of a temporary committee to address creating a public use ordinance for legal recreational marijuana in the county, and a staffing addition to the County Attorney’s office. The board also discussed the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and how to ensure adequate oversight for the many projects it will include. Finally, they also touched on elements of the county’s strategic plan, now in its final stages of development.

Temporary committee on recreational marijuana

The board voted unanimously to grant the request from the Sheriff’s Department and County Attorney’s office for a temporary committee to discuss recreational marijuana usage laws. During the meeting, County Attorney Molly Hicken stated that the request for the committee stems from the need for the county to tailor the broader state statues to Cook County. Hicken also said that there were “holes” in parts of the state law, which the county would need to fill to create a clear public use ordinance. The board identified stakeholders to be included in the formation of the committee beyond the sheriff, attorney, and commissioners. Those groups were the City of Grand Marais, the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Cook County Public Health and Human Services, ISD 166, the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, and the citizenry.

During the public comments portion of the meeting Linda Jurek expressed, on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, that they have been approached by entrepreneurs in the community who are interested in exploring dispensary business opportunity. While there has been some discussion amongst the commissioners about the idea of a municipal dispensary, in an interview with WTIP, County Administrator James Joerke made it clear that, at this point, the county was not pursuing the idea. He acknowledged that there is an economic element to the issue, but the purpose of the committee would not be to establish a business. He said, “The the temporary committees really focus more on the regulatory aspect of the issue.”

County Attorney staffing

The board also approved a request from Human Resources to create a second assistant county attorney position. Joerke offered some context regarding the county attorney’s job, saying, “The mission of the county attorney’s office is obviously to prosecute criminal cases, but also to provide legal counsel to the county board, to county departments, to make sure that we are taking into account legal risks and protecting ourselves against those.” He said that the current workload surpassed what the current staff was able to manage. He said, “What this new assistant county attorney position would do would be to enable the County Attorney’s office to more effectively address that workload, and to provide timely response on requests from the board and the departments on our legal counsel.”

Joerke also mentioned that both the type of cases, as well as the approach to prosecuting those cases, can be time consuming. While Cook County may lack a lot of high profile cases, Joerke said that there is still crime in the community. He said, “A lot of that relates to domestic issues, you know, abuse cases, partner abuse, child abuse, that kind of thing. And for that reason, it’s really important that we’re adequately staffed in the County Attorney’s office, so that people who who need justice are able to get it.” Joerke also brought up the County Attorney’s efforts to use the principles of restorative justice. He said that this can mean working with many other departments and organizations to achieve the best outcome for everyone impacted by a crime, and that this can take time.

The board not only approved the creation of a second assistant county attorney position, but they also adjusted the pay rate for the assistant positions. During the board meeting, Hicken said that there was a major staffing shortage for assistant attorneys in counties across the state. She identified the rise in pay for public defenders as a reason that many lawyers are choosing that career path, making filling county positions much harder. Joerke said about the new pay scale for the assistant county attorney positions, “It’s one thing to create a position, but if the compensation for it is not at least somewhat competitive with what’s happening in the market, you’re not going to be able to fill it.”

Capital Improvement Plan

During the Jan. 9 meeting, Joerke gave the board an update on the CIP. The proposals that the county collected for architectural and construction management services are now under review by the Budget and Facilities Advisory Committee. Joerke also took the time to mention that this committee has two openings, for residents from Districts 1 and 3. Parties interested in serving on the committee can find the information forms on the county website, or they can call Joerke’s office at 218-387-3602.

As the CIP enters this phase of the process, some community members are cautious. Commissioner Deb White raised the issue during the Jan. 9 meeting that the county has run into difficulties in the past with the execution of construction projects. She expressed the need for strong oversight from the county to ensure the quality of the work that is being done. When speaking with WTIP, Joerke agreed with Commissioner White’s concerns, citing the examples of the YMCA building and the addition to the courthouse as time when “corners were cut.”

Joerke said that he believed that the current situation would be better. He said that there would be good oversight from the CIP steering committee, that he would be working closely with the construction manager, and that he felt that the current board had an understanding of how to look at the long-term costs of a building, instead of prioritizing only initial costs.

Strategic Planning

The Jan. 9 meeting ended with a mention of the county’s strategic planning efforts, which are in their final stages. Through the planning process, the county identified several priority items, namely, improving efficiency and resilience, and increasing transparency. When speaking with WTIP, Joerke said that the Covid-19 pandemic emphasized the need for flexibility and for plans to be in place to ensure continuity of services. He also said that the county is committed not only to transparency, but to increasing interaction between constituents and county leaders during decision making.

Through the remainder of January, the Board of Commissioners will have several meetings of note. On Jan. 16, during the Committee of the Whole work session, the board will see a presentation regarding the bonding proposal to help fund the CIP. That meeting will be available to watch through the county website. Joerke suggested that those interested in the bonding proposal watch the meeting in preparation for the public hearing scheduled for Jan. 30. This meeting is the designated time for residents to offer their commentary and feedback about the proposal. The next regular Board of Commissioners meeting will be held on Jan. 23.

WTIP’s Kirsten Wisniewski spoke with Cook County Administrator James Joerke about the Jan. 9 Board of Commissioners meeting.