New Castle News

Closer Look

July 19, 2013

Our Opinion: Commissioners shouldn’t hide jail privatization efforts

NEW CASTLE — A mystery surrounds Lawrence County’s jail.

It doesn’t involve the lockup so much as what the Lawrence County commissioners may do with it. For some time now, the commissioners have been involved in a mostly secretive effort to look into having a private operator run the facility.

The commissioners have solicited offers and, supposedly, one company has responded. But what that response is remains part of the mystery; the commissioners won’t say.

Instead, the New Castle News was told it would have to file a request under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law in order to obtain information about the proposal.

Why? Presumably the commissioners have ready access to the proposal, so all the right to know filing does is drag things out.

But this has been the general process the commissioners have followed with their jail privatization initiative. They have had no substantive public discussions about their intentions and have not articulated precisely what they hope to achieve.

Similarly, we don’t know what methods or insights they are using to assess any proposals, as the county has never had private jail operations before.

Even the Lawrence County Prison Board, which oversees the jail and its operations, has been kept in the dark, with several members saying they have not been informed of any privatization offers.

And in an odd exchange at this week’s prison board meeting, Commissioner Robert Del Signore said he has not even looked at the proposal the commissioners received.

“I don’t want to look at it,” Del Signore said. “I don’t want to be swayed one way or another.”

Huh? How does any commissioner plan to assess the proposal if he is unwilling to review it?

So this merely adds another baffling layer to the whole thing. As we have said previously, we support the idea of looking at ways to privately run some government operations. If it reduces costs or promotes efficiency, that serves the public good.

But none of that involves secrecy. To the contrary, a step as unique as turning the county jail over to a private operator ought to be handled as openly as possible. The fact the commissioners have opted for a high level of secrecy merely adds to the questions.

After all, the commissioners do not own the jail. It is the property of the people of Lawrence County. And good government procedures dictate that the taxpayers ought to be kept in the loop when major changes such as this are explored.

Furthermore, any privatization move with the jail involves policy matters that absolutely should be handled in public.

The commissioners need to rethink their approach, and taxpayers should demand it.

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