New Castle News

June 20, 2013

Deadline moved for jail privatization bids

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The Lawrence County commissioners have extended the deadline for proposals to privatize the jail.

County administrator James Gagliano said Tuesday the new deadline is July 12 for proposals to manage the jail, which would remain county-owned.

The date was delayed from May 31 at the request of an interested company, he said, adding two firms have indicated interest so far.

The proposals will be turned over to the prison board, Gagliano said, noting it will be a prison board matter.

The prison board is made up of the three commissioners, the controller, the sheriff, the district attorney and the president judge.

Controller David Gettings, board chairman, said it is likely to be discussed at July 17’s meeting.

The commissioners sent out the request for proposals earlier this year and at least one company toured the 268-bed prison.

The letter was sent to seven prospective management companies, indicating that if the change is to be made, the chosen firm would take over running the jail Jan. 1.

The letter also indicates the commissioners would open sealed proposals at a public meeting after the deadline.

Should privatization occur, the 96-member jail staff no longer would be county employees. Most of them — 79 — have a contract that expires Dec. 31. They are members of Construction and General Laborers Union Local 964. The jail has 67 full-timers, most of whom belong to the union.

The county’s letter stipulates preference be given to hiring current employees.

Discussions about privatization and deadlines for proposals have been private among the county officials. Gagliano said that is because it is an “administrative” matter.

“We’re allowed to meet without everything being public,” Dan Vogler, commissioner chairman, said Tuesday. “We weren’t making any decisions.”

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, disagreed.

“The key here is that (the commissioners) did make a decision, to seek requests for proposals. That should have happened publicly, after there had been a public discussion about the issue. It really affects taxpayers and residents.”

She contends most discussions among the commissioners or the prison board must be public.

“Generally that kind of discussion, of whether to privatize a prison, would be at a public meeting,” she said. “The burden has to fall to the county commissioners to tell us why (public discussions) haven’t occurred.”

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act requires that any time a quorum of members discusses agency business, it must do so at a public meeting unless an exception applies to warrant an executive session. Those exceptions are personnel, pending litigation and real estate transactions.

“None of those would address privatizing or outsourcing a county jail,” Melewsky said. “It sounds to me as if the agency should have had public discussion before issuing requests for proposals. I think it raises Sunshine Act compliance issues.”

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)