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Editorial: Word of the year: Liability

This year still has a few months to go, but it’s safe to say the word of the year around the Pierce County Courthouse for 2013 is liability.

One definition of liability is “legal responsibility.” This year, the county is hearing about and working at protecting itself from responsibility should anyone be injured.

Let’s start with the jail. Anyone who has lived or worked in this county for longer than six months knows the present Pierce County Jail building is past its prime in terms of efficiency.

A panel of three citizens spent roughly the first six months of the year studying and researching options for the jail.

Among the many meetings which were held, one that stood out was when the county’s insurance representative said Pierce County is in outstanding shape, but danger looms and then the county would be—you guessed it—liable.

John Dirkse from Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Company also backed up his point by telling the committee of the trouble Monroe County had when it had two suicides in its jail between 2008-2009. Monroe was criticized in state inspection reports for its lack of suicide prevention efforts.

The Pierce committee has recommended building a new stand-alone jail and sheriff’s department and, as of this writing, a planning committee is determining the best location for it.

Let’s move on to issue No. 2. The building committee voted in the spring to remove the two large oak trees that stood in front of the courthouse for generations.

There was concern about the trees’ deterioration and the fact branches hung over Main Street. If one of them fell onto a car or a walker, committee members said, the county would be liable.

Protesters who wanted to save the trees said no branches have fallen yet—so why get rid of them now? Can’t take the chance, the committee answered, and the trees came down.

Which brings us to the third issue. Recently, security glass and doors were installed in the clerk of courts office to provide protection for workers there.

During the Sept. 9 finance and personnel committee meeting, members discussed installing a glass window in the register of probate office.

Register of Probate Dee Novak told the committee she felt safe in her office and said a window isn’t necessary. Committee members disagreed, saying they couldn’t take the chance because the county would be held liable if something happened.

Novak replied someone would have to leap over her desk to get to her. She said a gunman would pose a greater threat. But, she said, because her office doesn’t deal in finances, what were the chances of a gunman coming?

Her argument fell on deaf ears, as the window was approved. Register in probate could be just the beginning. Minutes from a courthouse security workgroup meeting this summer indicate all courthouse offices would be considered for protective windows, but the courts area will be given priority.

There you have it. If you don’t think county government accomplishes much, it’s safe to say it has done one thing in 2013: watch for liability.