Area residents asked about justice center issues

January 15, 2015

By John Bing - Guest Columnist The Advertiser-Tribune

Should the green space where the old courthouse stood be kept open and available to the community? Do we need more and better space for court facilities? And, if so, what is the best way to provide it?

In November, my survey research class at Heidelberg University asked 265 Tiffin-area residents about these issues. We called random numbers from the most recent telephone book. Our refusal rate was relatively low, and I believe the sample was representative of local opinion.

We asked about the importance of retaining an open space for community activities on the site where the old courthouse stood in two separate ways. In the first instance, we asked people whether they "strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree or don't have an opinion" on whether it is important to keep the space where the old courthouse stood open and available to the community. More than two-thirds agreed with the statement, half of these "strongly." Only 14 percent disagreed and 17 percent had no opinion.

A second half of the sample was asked the same question in a different way: "Some people think it's important to keep the space where the old courthouse stood open and available to the community. How about you? How important do you think it is to keep this space open? Very important, important or not so important?" In this instance very few (5 percent) volunteered that they had no opinion. Again, the importance of keeping the space open was widely supported. Less than a third of those with an opinion said it is "not so important." Thirty-two percent said "very important" and 38 percent, "important."

On the basis of this evidence (given that the sample was reasonably random), I think it is 95 percent likely that between 60 and 74 percent of the people in the area felt as early as November that maintaining a green space at the site of the old courthouse is important.

We also asked our respondents what we should do if we decide to provide more space for judicial services. Of those with an opinion, only one quarter said we should build on the "green space," while the rest, three-fourths, were equally split between leaving things the way they are or utilizing the East Tower site.

Random surveys are not a perfect way of finding out how stakeholders, the citizens of a community, feel about important issues. It is very difficult to write unbiased questions. People vary in the quality of the information they have about issues.

Surveys can, though, be helpful. They bring people to the table.

Our results show that many people in Tiffin have strong opinions about these issues, opinions that will change as they consider new ideas and information. This survey was conducted before nearly 2,000 area residents inspected the East Tower facility.

Judging citizen opinions is like trying to hit a moving target. In fact, our respondents clearly said, when asked, that they needed more information about these issues, indicating the importance of more public discussion of the value and best location for additional court facilities, as well as the value to the community of an open space at the center of Tiffin.

More than two-thirds of our sample, recognizing that an issue this complex deserves careful consideration, felt that lower "building and operating cost" should not be a first priority in making a decision, but that we should take into account all relevant factors by considering "what is best for the future of Tiffin."

I believe the survey indicates that Tiffin residents want a full examination of all the alternatives and all the values involved. There are two studies now underway that examine these issues. They will provide the basis for thoughtful and serious debate.

What we decide to do about a justice center will affect the future of Tiffin, perhaps for generations. The people of Tiffin want and deserve to be an informed part of this discussion.

John Bing is a professor emeritus of political science and anthropology at Heidelberg University.