Flippant description riles judge
By Emily Bialkowski
A quick vote at the July 3 Houston County Board meeting came back with a vengeance July 10 after Houston County Judge James Fabian caught wind of a building access issue.
Commissioner Justin Zmyewski asked that a motion be made to allow commissioners key card access to the Criminal Justice Center. The item passed without much debate and was supported by the board (Commissioner Tom Bjerke was absent).
As the decision made its way through the appropriate pipeline so cards could get issued, a red flag was raised by the judge.
“Last week the county board acted on something that wasn’t on the agenda. You asked for full access to the Justice Center,” Fabian said, adding, “No one has access to anyone else’s business over there.”
The judge pressed the board asking why they couldn’t get buzzed in like everyone else.
Zmyewski was quick to retort. “I shouldn’t have to do it. What I’m saying is, as an authority in this county to oversee this building, should I have to buzz this button?”
The judge pressed that he does not even have access to multiple offices in the building, such as the sheriff’s office, probation office and the county attorney’s office.
“To diminish risk I have to limit access. There are people that have worked for me for 30 to 40 years that don’t have access,” added Court Administrator Darlene Larson.
Zmyewski, markedly agitated, said, “I have authority to approve $17 million to build that building but I can’t get in!”
The judge, also passionate about the topic, retorted, “I’m no better than anyone else – than the lowest paid person in this building – and neither are you.”
Commissioner Jack Miller said he thought the board ought to have access to the building but not to file through files or anything of the like.
The judge said the board was over extending their authority, and Miller said the judge was “overreacting.”
A discrepancy among board members seemed to emerge when Commissioner Tom Bjerke said he does not want access, and the responsibility that comes with it, to any particular office. He said it would be good for commissioners to access the lobby and lower level conference area. Bjerke said he respects the level of privacy that needs to exist in a building where confidential records are maintained.
Zmyewski said he viewed the issue differently than his colleague. “At a school the superintendent has access to everything. We do not have a county administrator. If I want to get in the attorney’s suite there shouldn’t be confidential papers out anyway,” Zmyewski said.
The judge said it’s not an equal comparison. “What do you need to be in there for,” Fabian pressed.
“We’re in charge of a budget. If I want to look to see if there is mold on the walls I want to be able to do it,” Zmyewski said, adding, “What is the big issue here?”
“I don’t think we can explain it to you,” the judge said.
Miller tried to settle the situation down and encouraged people to not get personal. Debate continued.
“What about the secretaries,” Zmyewski asked.
Fabian said they are confidential employees.
“Prior to moving to that building the courthouse was used without so many restrictions,” Zmyewski said.
“That’s why this building was built,” Larson interjected.
Miller said he felt access to the building was necessary but that it didn’t need to be all-encompassing. Other commissioners agreed that access to the lobby and lower level conference room would suffice.
The situation was diffused when the judge agreed limited access is acceptable.
Miller agreed that the extent of access was not explained as well as it should have been.
“Had we been invited to a meeting we would have known what you meant by ‘full access,’” Fabian said.
Commissioners will get a key card with limited access to the lobby and conference room. They were warned that dispatch monitors cameras throughout the building and that it would behoove any visitor to announce their presence after hours.