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Report back from County Board meeting on March 22, 2012
Since the proposed plans for the $20 million jail construction project landed on the Champaign County Board agenda earlier this year, the driving force behind this process has been an all-white grouping known as the Jail Space Improvement Planning Team. The team has functioned somewhat like a secret society within the board. While all subcommittees and advisory bodies of the board are supposed to be under the Open Meetings Act (and therefore open to the public and obliged to keep records/minutes of their proceedings), the leading light of the Planning Team, Board member Tom Betz, has repeatedly claimed that the team falls outside the regulations of Open Meetings. When pressed for minutes of their meetings, County Board Administrator Deb Busey claimed that the group never met and therefore had no minutes.
The Public= “Lunatic Fringe”
At Thursday night’s Board meeting CUCPJ member Aaron Ammons refuted Betz’ and Busey’s claims by producing a three inch stack of the planning team’s email correspondence obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The 180 pages contained ample evidence of the team’s meetings and deliberations. Ammons also noted that in the emails Betz had frequently referred to those involved in the public participation (the residents and taxpayers of this county) in highly derogatory terms, including at one time labeling them a “lunatic fringe.” Ammons went on to call upon the Board to follow up on its promise at the March 6 meeting to add a person from a “minority-influenced” district to the planning team. He noted that that Carol Ammons of District 5 had acknowledged that she would be willing to serve but the FOIA’d emails showed Betz and company had tried to avoid Ms. Ammons by asking every other person of color on the Board to serve. Aaron Ammons called on the Board to immediately appoint Ms. Ammons, especially in light of the comment by State’s Attorney Julia Reitz at that same March 6 meeting in which she stated that having a “token person of color” on the team would make no difference.
Hiding the True Costs of the Jail
Following Ammons, CUCPJ member Jerehme Bamburger noted how the planning team members had consistently avoided answering questions about the projected cost of the jail construction, claiming that such figures were not available. However, the FOIA’d email correspondence showed that as early as January 2011, Deb Busey, had set the jail cost at a figure of $22 million. Yet when Board members Giraldo Rosales, Pattsi Petri and Chris Alix asked for cost estimates she remained silent. When members of the public used a figure of $20 million, Betz derided them for pulling figures out of the air. Yet he himself had been quoted in a November 2011 News-Gazette article estimating the costs in the $12-15 million range. Bamberger argued this willful evasiveness and suppression of information by members of the planning team mandated the Board to impose some regulations on the team, including holding regular meetings with minutes and providing monthly report backs from those meetings to the Board.
While the hard debates over the jail construction process are yet to come, the public participation to date has forced the Board to take some hard looks at their own lack of transparency and failure to reign in a planning team that seems determined to build a jail regardless of public opinion or the genuine needs of the county. In order to derail this massive jail construction project, CUCPJ along with other individuals and organizations in the community, will have to mobilize a broad cross section of the county residents to pressure their elected officials to spend the money on programs which will improve public safety and quality of life. This doesn’t mean allocating more funds to locking people up but rather focusing on genuine needs like housing, mental health services, substance abuse treatment programs, re-entry support for people returning from prison or jail, job training and youth education. It also means removing the racial discrepancies in how the criminal justice system operates. With all of these pressing needs, throwing $20 million into a jail looks more and more outrageous.