County hammers away on courthouse

DA's office gets needed expansion

Hood River County is hammering away on the last of its courthouse remodeling projects.

By March District Attorney John Sewell and his six staffers will be processing cases behind security glass in almost 2,000 square feet of office space -- a move they are all anxiously awaiting.

"This project will provide a much better work environment which is more functional and efficient," said Sewell, who is now forced to store some of his 3,000-4,000 case files in cardboard boxes around his desk.

His current office has 720 square feet of space that is used for trial preparation, to interview police officers and other case witnesses, and also as a sitting room for clients who cannot be left unprotected in the public hallway.

"Most importantly this remodel will create a more comfortable and secure area for victims and witnesses waiting to make a court appearance," said Sewell.

His new office will be accessible only by the receptionist releasing the lock on secured entrance doors. Sewell has advocated for that precaution every since the hostile subject of a restraining order stormed into the office to confront his victim following a court appearance.

"I have been waiting for 15 years for our clients to have a comfortable secluded area where they can relax and their kids can play," said Jackie Henson, who shares duties as crime victim's advocate with Gloria Needham.

Parks and Buildings Director Dean Guess said it will cost about $40,000 (about one-fourth will be state funded) to remodel the district attorney's office. He said the space for the project became available in early December when the juvenile department moved its operations to the lower level of the courthouse.

Guess, who has orchestrated the courthouse upgrades, said for about $50,000 the county almost tripled the size of the juvenile department floor space. Donita Huskey-Wilson, director, and her five employees were formerly jammed into 600 square feet -- which was also frequently occupied by an enraged teen and his/her hostile family members.

"This has been very good for the mental state of the staff, we feel spoiled and are very pleased," said Huskey-Wilson, who processes cases for between 300-350 young offenders each year.

Guess said although it took two years to draft finalized plans for modernization of the 48-year-old courthouse, the actual work has gone quickly. He said costs have also been lowered significantly by using the county personnel and members of the community corrections crew as much as possible.

"One of the best parts about it has been making all the staff happy by giving them more work space," said Guess.

He said the current remodeling plans began after the Northern Oregon Correctional Facility opened in 1999, freeing up 4,500 square feet of room on the second floor. When county officials gave the go-ahead last year for Guess to spend $170,000 making that space serviceable for other purposes, he turned 3,500 square feet into a squad room and three holding cells for the county sheriff's office, adding to the 1,600 square feet that had previously been used by the 10 employees.

The remaining 1,000 square feet of vacated jail space was converted into a multi-purpose conference room that also serves as the county commissioner's meeting room.

When the city police relocated to the old city hall four years ago it was the start of renovations that began by converting a storage room in the basement into a planning department.

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