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Grayson County Jail Bond Election Canceled; Privatization Proposal May be Dead

Kathy Williams reports that Grayson County's jail bond election is canceled, and County Judge Drue Bynum's desire to build a new private jail may be squelched. From the Sherman Herald-Democrat ("Grayson County jail bond election canceled; entire process could begin anew", Sep. 10):

There will be no Grayson County Jail bond election Nov. 3. County Judge Drue Bynum said Thursday he also holds little hope of getting a privately built and operated jail approved. So Grayson County will begin anew the process of deciding what to do with an aging jail and future inmate populations.

The Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) indicated on Wednesday it would file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the entire Grayson County Commissioners Court meeting that occurred on August 31 in state district court. Andrew wrote last week that Grayson County approved a November public jail bond election at that meeting, but Commisioners were hedging their bets on the bond proposal. On August 31, commissioners also approved several items that would have moved privatization of the County Jail forward, including a new public facilities corporation (PFC) that would have sidestepped voters by financing a private facility with revenue bonds, and the form of a contract with Southwest Correctional to build and operate the Grayson County Jail (for more on Public Facility Corporations, check out Considering a Private Jail, Prison or Detention Center? A Resource Packet for Community Members and Public Officials).

According to CLEAT, the County Commissioners Court violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by posting its August 31 agenda at least one minute short of the 72-hour advance notice required by law. If CLEAT won a declaratory judgment against Grayson, the County Commissioners Court would have to void all actions taken during the August 31 meeting. This would require the county to postpone any jail bond election until May of 2010.

County Judge Drue Bynum, who indicated to the Herald-Democrat on Wednesday that he was ready to confront the legal challenge from CLEAT, conceded Thursday that the Commissioners Court did, in fact, violate the Texas Open Meetings Act.

From the Herald Democrat:

As much as I hate to acknowledge it, we were late and we didn't meet the letter of the law. I think we certainly met the spirit," Bynum said in a telephone interview. "I am willing to void the entire 31 Aug. agenda. ... Obviously we won't need to ratify the entire bond election, because it's too late for that. Bynum said the Court will have to discuss Monday where to go from here on the jail issue.

We'll be following developments from Grayson County closely.

A special note-- Kathy Williams at the Sherman Herald Democrat deserves our high-praise for doing such a stellar job of reporting on the Grayson County Jail saga. Thanks, from all of us at Texas Prison Bid'ness!

Related:

Sherman's Fight Against Proposed Private Prison

From a story I wrote at Private Prison Watch, the city of Sherman, TX in Grayson County has been entrenched in an ongoing battle against a proposed for-profit prison and an irresponsible construction scheme for years. Just recently, the city commissioners met again last Monday to discuss a land deal for the new prison -- before even signing a contract with a prison operating company! However, the county remains at a stalemate, as commissioners take the public opposition into consideration. All-in-all, it will cost the county $33 million to contract the construction and maintenance to LaSalle Corrections, when it would only cost $31 million to rennovate and expand the existing Sherman jail. Perhaps cost is not the only issue.

Grayson County Judge Drue Bynum, the main figure in the debates who has been responsible for encouraging these plans, said in regards to the proposed plans "we [need] to get ourselves off high-center, and now we are off high-center" ("Private Jail Option Approved by Grayson County Leaders" KTEN, July 13th). In other words, he wants to remove the County's involvement with their prisoners and take the out of sight, out of mind approach.

The proposed land siting for the new prison has some Sherman residents upset, and for good reason. The proposed prison site (shown here in red) is directly across Highway 11 from a residential area. With concerns over 24/7 bright lights and noise, one can only speculate as to the upcoming property value decreases. The prison site is only 0.6 miles from the second nearest densely populated residential area, city parks (shown in blue), and within one mile from the Sherman elementary school (shown in pink). 
Because of these concerns, a second proposed prison site has been proposed on laned owned by by cotton mammoth Anderson Clayton as a disposal location for decades before today, where it is owned by a Dow Jones board member Christopher Bancroft. This siting would move the prison away from the Southeast into the Northeast, away from the elementary school and residential areas. This proposed siting, however, has not been approved. With the proposed prison to hold 1,500 additional people, there will without a doubt be a sizeable increase in traffic from prisoner visitors, prison employees, legal counselers, and police personnel coming and going at a regular rate. If this new facility is constructed, it will increase Sherman's prison population five fold. Sherman's Mayor, Bill Magers has said, "I understand the concerns of those who live there about having this [prison] near them. I would have the same concerns if I lived there" (Herald Democrat; February 5, 2008). The mayor appears to be the only city official to speak out against moving the Sherman prison out of downtown, stating that it doesn't make to create 1,500 more prison beds when the population of Sherman is 140,388 and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards estimates that about 3 people for every 1,000 are incarcerated -- meaning Sherman only needs about half the amount of the 1,500 prison beds.

The opponents and the Sherman mayor are in a standoff against the pricinct commissioners who have plans of importing prisoners from Dallas to make a profit. The startup costs, both in finance and safety are extremely high if this plan follows through, and the potential for profit is minimal. "I think it's time to stop the for-profit, private option and return to the basic concept of expanding the jail downtown," said Sheriff Keith Gary. "[The downtown prison is] near the courts and avoid[s] the pitfalls we have learned exist with a private corporation" ("Private Jail Option Approved by Grayson County Leaders," KTEN, July 13th). 

There is a great risk that Sherman's jail project will amount to another failed Public Facilities Corporation situation (read about PFCs in Grassroots Leadership's "Considering a Private Jail...?"). So long as Mayor Magers and the citizens of Sherman keep thinking about their own interests and not the interests of private companies, there is a good chance this stalemate will end in the rational choice to remodel instead of reinvent. 
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