Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Schools vs. Jails on Smith County ballot this November

The Tyler Independent School District voted today to put nearly $125 million in school bonds on the November ballot, reported the Tyler Morning Telegraph, while Smith County commissioners on Thursday are expected propose yet another jail bond on the same ballot after jail proposals overwhelmingly failed in each of the last two years.

After two blistering defeats, expect this third jail bond proposal to have a particularly rough ride. I'm hearing through the grapevine that opposition is already organizing behind the scenes, and there are rumblings of possible litigation because the jail plan was concocted behind closed doors, possibly in violation of the open meetings act.

Not only that, the Presidential election will likely spawn exceptionally high voter turnout, which bodes particularly well for jail bond opponents. Indeed, if we may judge from the primaries, Sen. Obama's presence on the ballot could dramatically boost turnout in minority-dominated North Tyler precincts that overwhelmingly opposed jail expansion the last two times.

Putting the school bonds on the same ballot are like a gift from God to jail opponents. Voters who're concerned with rising tax burdens may view the two proposals as a choice, not a checklist. Assuming the school bond package is palatable (and I know nothing about it beyond today's newspaper coverage), maybe jail bond opponents should consider running with the slogan, "Schools Not Jails." If that choice becomes explicit - especially given the last two landslide jail bond failures - I think I can guess which way Smith County would go.


Anonymous said...

Wonderfully insightful... I guess we should just forget about jails and criminal justice. Let's let all the criminals out on the streets and allow them to roam the school campuses. That would be a great solution.

The "opposition" group is slinging mud without any legal basis.

The most recent proposal is a solid jail plan developed with input from folks who have been on both sides of the issue in recent years. It is less than half the cost of last year's failed jail plan, and it is substantially less than the failed jail bond proposals of 2006.

Despite the reduction in the price tag, the plan will meet Smith County's jail needs for many years to come, and it will have the necessary infrastructure in place to expand the facility when the time comes.

The commissioners have taken great strides in recent months to plan for improvements to all county facilities on a pay as you go basis. They are committed to meeting every facility deficiency with conservative, affordable, common sense solutions, and their efforts should be applauded.

Robert Langham said...

The third jail plan is an expansion of the existing jail, on land already owned by the city. Duh. Finally.

But nobody trusts the commissioners anymore.

The school folks are building an empire. They got shot down on a 300 million dollar bond issue, so they are trying it in 100 million dollar bites. The first bite was for cute elementary schools, but there isn't any fresh thinking like single sex junior highs et, et.

When commissioners and school boards ask you for the same thing, election after election, I think after the second time a caveat should be added: If this bond issue fails, the ENTIRE board or commissioners court should resign.

Smith County Jail problems could be solved with firing some judges and letting the rest of the know that high bonds shouldn't be used to coerce plea bargains.

Anonymous said...

Grits - did you ever think about all the people who need to be in jail but aren't? We'd have to double or triple capacity.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 7:00 who writes, "I guess we should just forget about jails and criminal justice."

Nonsense, that's really a red herring. Smith County should get smart about jails and criminal justice instead of throwing good money after bad.

Don't take my word for it. Judge Cynthia Kent proposed a long laundry list of solutions that could solve Smith County's jail overcrowding problems with no new construction. The Commissioners Court only funded one of them, which has been an overwhelming success (mostly because of commitments by only two judges - it'd work better if Skeen and others would participate). If you think Judge Kent wants to "let all the criminals out on the streets," then you simply must know nothing of her record.

That tells me they don't really want a solution. They want a new jail. Smith needs to use the tools at their disposal now to reduce overcrowding before proposing any new construction.

Plato, I assume your comment is made tongue in cheek. The United States has 5% of the planet's population and 25% of the incarcerated prisoners. Texas has the first or second highest incarceration rate in the United States (the highest of any big state), while Smith County has nearly double the incarceration rate of the Texas state average, giving them one of the highest incarceration rates of any locality on the planet.

Meanwhile, Smith is about 30% short of minimum guard staffing at the current jail, I'm told, and their low-risk facility manager and several subordinates were recently fired for corruption. To make matters worse, the chief deputy who ran jail operations just bailed on them and took a job in Dallas County.

It's pretty ridiculous for them to expand the jail before trying front-end solutions or fixing existing problems. Especially when the voters clearly don't want it.

Anonymous said...

"He who opens a school door, closes a prison." - Victor Hugo

Kinda apt in this situation, don't ya think?

The 'champagne' period of trying to incarcerate our way out of dealing with the root causes of social problems (like illegal drugs) is finally having to contend with the 'beer budget' realities of the problems still remaining, but the money to incarcerate the unsightly results of those problems having run out. And this is happening all over the country.

So, now it's the classic 'guns or butter' scenario. It's the taxpayer's choice, as they are ultimately the ones who foot the bill, one way or another.

Anonymous said...

To the person saying that this is a conservative approach. I would ask why did the commissioners court decide to develop this plan in secret. The plan is called phase one. How many phases are there going to be? How much is all this going to cost? No one knows because that part is still a secret. To say that this is a great plan becuase it is only half of the last bond election is too elementary. We all can do the math. But does this plan solve this problem. No.

The fundamental problem of this commissioners court is a lack of trust. We have not trusted their judgment with the last three proposals. Now they no longer trust us because they have decided to do all this in secret. The commissioners court as a whole has been presented this plan only one time. One week later they are going to put it on the November ballot. A commissioners court that develops plans in secret violate the open meetings act. We will see if anyone has the guts to call them on it in Smith County.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous who said:
"The 'opposition' group is slinging mud withou any legal basis."

Here is my response. Have you read Tex. Atty. Gen. Op. JC-0060 (1999). This opinion deals with a committee on which the County Judge and one Commissioner served. The most interesting thing was that the opinion was requested by Smith County in 1999. In response to the question, the Texas Attorney General concluded that these elected official could not serve on such a committee to develop a plan if the committee did not comply with the open meetings act. Now, nine years, Judge Baker calls several people and asks them to serve on a committee (their words not mine) and they develop this plan and release it. No meeting was every posted and they had at least seven meetings. Now they are scrambling to say: it was not a committee, they were not appointed by the commissioners court, they only gathered information. But the truth keeps slipping out. They call it the commissioners court plan before it was even submitted to the commissioners court. There are other examples. The problems keep growing.

It looks like a clear violation of the law. They are now citing their own attorney general opinion which just makes their arguments worse because in that opinion there was not even a committee that was appointed. It was an informal group of elected officials meeting to diseminate and gather information on jail overcrowding in their county. They met without posting meetings. The attorney general said that since the group only gathered information there was no requirement to post meetings. Notice the attonrey general did not say that there was no necessity to post because the group was not officially appointed. Instead, the attorney general stated that the test was whether the group was gathering information or putting together a plan.

Under any, ANY, review of what was done in Smith County, the county judge and the county commissioner violated the law (in my opinion) because they put together a new jail proposal, released it to the public and one week after presenting it to the rest of the commissioners court it was rubber stamped onto the ballot for November.

Anonymous said...

It's clear that Smith County needs a new jail. The problem is that on one trusts those in power with that kind of money. I wouldn't vote for anything until we get a new sheriff, DA and Judge Skeen is out of office. If we got a DA who actually believed in justice instead of one who just wants to lock everyone up, innocent or guilty, and we had some judges that set reasonable bonds we might not have as many people in jail. The current jail has got to be one of the worst run jails in the state. Until we get a competent sheriff I wouldn't vote for putting millions of dollars in these peoples hands. The current jail was completed in the 70's and is falling apart. Where did the money go that was supposed to be spent on maintenance of this building? It shouldn't be in the condition it is in if it were properly maintained.

Additionally, before spending millions of dollars other measures should be used such as the citation option authorized by the legislature for Class B misdemeanors. The Smith County DA didn't seem to understand how tha would work. Apparently he was admitting that he is not as competent as DA's in other jurisdictions who have found ways to make it work. The reality is that Bingham is not going to suppot anything that takes away his ability to incarcerate as many people as he possibly can. It's not about justice, it's about power.

To address our jail problem we need to start by electing a new sheriff, DA and at least one new judge. When we have honest and competent people in these positions then we can look at building something.

Anonymous said...

Smith County has failed to implement meaningful alternatives to incarceration, failed to ensure all currently available jail space is being used to the maximum extent possible, and only after doing that can the county make a credible case to the taxpayers that additional jail space is needed. The taxpayers have a right to know that all available options and resources have been used BEFORE more jail space is built. County officials simply haven't taken meaningful steps to reduce the demand for more jail beds. Only then can the county demonstrate to taxpayers it has done its due diligence BEFORE asking for more money.

Anonymous said...

To Grits:

Nonsense. The Commissioners have voted to support and have continued to support several alternative programs. The AIC program has expanded thanks to the Commissioners support to support double the number of participants originally planned. A drug court is in operation, again, funded by the Commissioners. And most recently, the Commissioners voted to support a pilot mental health court program, and Judge Baker volunteered to serve as judge for that program.

The jail is not 30% short in its staffing needs. In fact, the jail passed its most recent inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Grits – you really should check your facts: Smith County still has the Chief Deputies it has had for years – men of outstanding credentials who are recognized experts throughout the State of Texas. They haven’t left, and they aren’t planning to leave as far as I know.

So, it’s ridiculous to expand the jail when Smith County is spending millions of dollars each year housing inmates in other counties because there is no room in Smith County? I’m clearly confused. We are trying many alternatives to keep the numbers low, yet we still spent nearly three million dollars this year housing inmates out of county --- and we don’t need a jail. Brilliant deduction!

To Anonymous: There was no secret. I heard Judge Baker say in January on CBS19 that he was meeting informally with various members of the community to try to build consensus for the right jail plan. Later, the newspaper said that these meetings were ongoing. If I knew about it, then they weren’t secret meetings.

The plan is less than half the cost. Sure, we can all do the math, but I’ve seen the proposal. It’s a good one. It has no fat that I can see. It’s unfortunate they didn’t get this one together before now, but that’s life.

The Commissioners knew that Judge Baker was trying to build consensus with various groups, and that’s what he did. They have seen the proposal and the positive support of the proposal. They had a second meeting to discuss detailed security plans with the architect, and they held a third meeting to decide whether to vote to place it on the ballot in November – which they did. It’s a no-brainer. It’s not as if they are shoving it down our throats (which they could do if they wanted to) – they are giving the voting public a chance to approve it or vote it down. Aren’t they supposed to seek solutions?

And to Anonymous Legal Wizard: I’ve read the opinion, and you’ve conveniently left out important parts of that opinion and other related opinions. If you truly believe that the law was violated then call the Texas Rangers – maybe you already have, but you know that your opinion doesn’t hold water. Just using common sense I would know either: 1) you are wrong; or 2) the law should be changed. Using your logic would mean that two Commissioners could never meet outside posted meetings to discuss and try to solve problems for the county. That is LUDICROUS!!!

To the anonymous author who thinks the jail was built in the 70s and is falling apart: what rock have you been living under? The jail was built in 1986, and it’s not even close to falling apart. It is well-maintained. It has a new roof. It has fresh paint. Everything that needs to work… works. The county has a dedicated maintenance fund – a fund that has sufficient money to get the repairs done.

Grits - YOU AND MANY OF YOUR READERS / COMMENTATORS ARE MISINFORMED. I enjoy your blog, but you can do better.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:46 - You're issuing red herrings. The question isn't whether the meetings were "secret" in the sense that they didn't talk to anyone about it, it's whether they were announced and POSTED as open meetings as required by law. (They weren't.)

Also, it's simply a falsehood to say "We are trying many alternatives to keep the numbers low." You're trying a handful, belatedly, but without any of the enthusiasm or urgency with which a new jail is being pushed.

I agree the mental health court was a step in the right direction, but it was only just proposed and has had no time to have any impact on the jail pop. The commissioners court can't take much credit for the AIC - they didn't want to do it, funded it grudgingly only after losing an election, and have refused to implement MANY other solutions that would prevent the need for expansion. Judge Kent has proposed a long list of ideas and the AIC was just the one they picked. My bet is if they lose the next election, they'll implement more. That's the main reason I oppose the bonds - I think they should try diversion first and losing jail votes appears to be the only thing that gives them incentive to do so.

Your comments on leadership at the Sheriff's Office tells me some of your other information may be equally suspect. For example, Tyler just lost the lieutenant who ran the maximum security portion of the jail to Dallas - here's a newsclip. Meanwhile, the supervisor at the low-risk facility committed suicide this spring after he was accused of corruption. So when I hear you say all the same people are there and the jail is run by "men of outstanding credentials who are recognized experts throughout the State of Texas," it's hard for me to take the rest of what you say seriously. Just reading the papers demonstrates otherwise - one needs no special knowledge.

Finally, your "brilliant deduction" comment just adds sarcasm to a lame argument but hardly bolsters it. Smith County has NOT aggressively pursued alternatives and ignored most of those proposed, so to say we tried alternatives and still must lease bed space is a complete red herring. It's just a misrepresentation.

If Tyler and Smith County had implemented HB 2391, if more judges used the AIC, and in general if the commissioners court had shown itself as willing to back diversion programs as they are new construction, Smith County just wouldn't need a new jail.

Build it without such reforms and Judge Kent is absolutely right: It will likely be full on the day it opens and solve nothing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

One more red herring to bust open; you write that interpreting a notice requirement for the meetings would mean that "two Commissioners could never meet outside posted meetings to discuss and try to solve problems for the count".

This misunderstands the open meetings ruling being cited. Commissioners certainly can meet in smaller numbers outside posted meetings, but when they're meeting in a group assigned to create a jail plan, that's public. They were developing a specific proposal aimed at a commissioners court vote. It's silly to claim anyone is saying commissioners can't talk. They can talk all they want. But if they want to conduct county business, they must do it in public view.

Anonymous said...

Grits... you are just plain wrong. You stated that the "Chief Deputy" in charge of the jail left. Your words, not mine. The Lieutenant was not in charge of the jail. The Captain and the Chief Deputy are in charge of the jail - and they remain in their positions and in charge. Yes. The Lieutenant left to pursue a higher paying position as Chief Deputy in Dallas. Wouldn't you do the same if a better opportunity presented itself. The Sheriff's department is a large one. To say that it is corrupt due to the actions of a few is wrong.

Again, you are wrong about the AIC program and other diversionary programs. The commissioners enthusiastically supported the program and the expansion of said program, but the AIC is not a solution that eliminates the need for a jail expansion.

As for you comments regarding open meetings, you apparently believe that this small group was charged with the responsibility of creating a jail plan by the Commissioners Court as a whole. The District Attorney's office reviewed the law and cleared the meetings by the County Judge and one Commissioner in part because this group was not "sanctioned" by the commissioners court. They simply came up with a solution that the rest of the court is now sold on. If you believe there was a true violation of Open Meetings laws then by all means take legal action.

The red herring comments are simly that - red herrings themselves.

Anonymous said...

I want to comment to Anonymous who said Judge Baker said in January on CBS19 that he was meeting informally with various members of the community to try to build consensus for the right jail plan. Later, the newspaper said that these meetings were ongoing. If I knew about it, then they weren’t secret meetings.

Is this really your argument? The fact that people knew that meeting were going on does not have anything to do with wether they could get into the room to witness what was taking place. We can all know that there is a meeting taking place at a certain date and time, but if we cannot get into the room to witness it, then it (by definition) is a secret meeting. Just because you know when and where (which I would dispute) does not keep the meeting from being secret since this would involve what happened inside the meeting.

This argument seems to be grasping at straws. Is this really going to be their argument? If it is I can see why they would want a new jail-- so they would have a nice clean place to stay.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous who says who says that there has not been a violation of the open meetings act and that I am either: 1) wrong; or 2) the law should be changed.

Here is my response. If I am wrong, then the law has a loop hole that would allow any governmental body in the United States of America to develop plans in private and secret. Why is that every county in Texas does not use this loop hole now? Could it be because it is not a loop hole,but is a violation of the law. How many times have we been through this even in Smith County. We had a similar issue when the Commissioners Court was meeting with vendors at a hotel in less than a quorum to get around the Open Meetings Act and they had to stop during the meetings because of the violations of the law.

As to your second comment that the law should be changed, this is essentially a concession that Judge Baker and Commissioner Fleming have violated the law that exists today.

The thing that is so shocking to me is that Commissioner Fleming has been the champion of the Open Meetings Act her entire career. She has filed criminal complaints before herself (or her group has). She has always taken a very conservative approach and if there was even a question she required that the meeting be posted. Why did this all change here? What would have changed if the meetings were public? We will never know because it was a private, secret meeting to which the public could not attend.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous: You say "As for you comments regarding open meetings, you apparently believe that this small group was charged with the responsibility of creating a jail plan by the Commissioners Court as a whole. The District Attorney's office reviewed the law and cleared the meetings by the County Judge and one Commissioner in part because this group was not "sanctioned" by the commissioners court. They simply came up with a solution that the rest of the court is now sold on. If you believe there was a true violation of Open Meetings laws then by all means take legal action."

I find it interesting that the new and improved defense is that the district attorney's office said it was okay. Yet when we ask the district attorney's office there will be an objection based upon the attorney-client privilege. So all we have is your word that the district attorney said it was okay. Well I am sorry. Your word is not enough. I have spoken to the district attorney about this and he never said a word about his office "approving" the meetings.

Additionally, the "sanctioned" portion of your argument is another red herring (you are good at those). The non commissioners court members of this group have said in press accounts that the were asked and did serve on a committee. It is irrelevant whether it was sanctioned or appointed by the commissioners. The test is whether this group took on the task a developing a plan. It is uncontested that they did. In essence, they took on the job of the commissioners court. Commissioner Fleming even stated at one community meeting that I attended that this was the commissioners court phase one plan. The only problem was that this was before it was even presented to the commissioners court. A smart individual would have been recording this statement.

The authorities say that the reason that these types of meetings must comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act is because of the danger that the rest of the court will RUBBER STAMP it. If they do then all the development of the plan would have been done in secret. Well this is exactly what happened here.

It seems like checkmate to me. JoAnn the expert on the Open Meetings Act must not really be an expert because this was a bonehead move. It looks like to me that Judge Baker and Commissioner Fleming gave a gift to their opponents.

Anonymous said...

Political correctness, especially what we experience here in Tyler, is getting to the point where our official could potentially place the citizens between a rock, and a hard place; thereby, if the officials continue down this path this could be a threat to our security. It also could be a threat to our very existence. Many in this city have created a business out of political correctness. I think this has done nothing but created animosity in Tyler and it has created a divide preventing our town from coming together to do what is best, for the county as a whole. Because of political correctness, Tylerites are duped believing just about anything.

This has prevented the county from coming together on important issues that will have a defining effect on the city’s future. Certain issues in Tyler have become taboo folks simply cannot approach certain subjects. No, unbiased dialogues exist in Tyler, so issues just fester amongst citizens creating Tylerites to become disenfranchised with their city government officials, also citizens start to view the leaders as oppressive in their own right. Issues from; living in a dry county, raising taxes on decreasing properties, reducing the speed on major highways, all the way down to banning smoking, has caused a significant divide in Tyler; Tyler needs how many Millions of dollars, One hundred Million?

The overall goal will be accomplished, and with a united community. Tyler’s cities leaders; either must start thinking differently by both, loosening the shirt collar, and by putting political correctness aside, secrecy and force will not work in the long run. In particular, stop passing ridicules laws then looking to Tylerites to make up the difference. Instead, the millions of lost revenue from liquor sales, tobacco sales, and poor decisions in failing to stabilize property taxes have the Tyler citizens wondering about their government. Possibly jail plans will have a beaming review from the mass’ of the community if the city government would stop banning personal freedoms which would inadvertently generate the revenue needed to fund projects because then the cities government would not be reaching into their pocket again. It is a win-win.

Currently Tyler’s politically correctness is hindering their overall goal. Contrary to the goal, the results are proving to form a widening gap of unity amongst the citizens. This could become catastrophic in the near future; it threatens how the citizens of this community see, act, and respond to each other, as well as the elected officials of the city in which they choose to reside in. It is for this reason Tyler citizens may need to stand up and rid this type of thing from this county before there are drastic consequences. This problem hinders our ability to do what is best for our county as a whole, because too many people are becoming more and more dissatisfied with what is happening here. If things continue, as they are, Tyler could self-destruct from the way citizens who reside here want to see it.

Anonymous said...

I would like to add to the comments made by the person above. In Smith County we have now had three bond elections with plans that were put together by different factions. We have not had a leader yet who has shown true leadership on the issue. What would that look like? Well I believe that there are three factions that have to compromise on the jail issue: the commissioners, the judges and the sheriff. The first two plans were put together by the commissioners (with some input by the sheriff). The third plan was put together by the sheriff's office and Judge Baker with a bond thrown to the judges at the 11th hour. It was done at the worst possible time and made the commissioners court look like they did not know what they were doing. Also, the judges did not have any true input. That, combined with the raise issue killed it.

We have not anyone yet require all three groups get in a room and compromise. The County Judge should be saying that until all of these groups compromise then we will do nothing.

But the real problem is that Commissioner Fleming just does not like the judges. She will not go into a room with them. So we have one of the three groups that will not participate in good faith. As a result we will continue to have a stalemate.

I really hope that some kind of charges are filed against Fleming. Then she will be forced to go into a room (courtroom) with one of the very people that she despises (a local judge). She will find out about how fair they can be at that time.