New Castle News

July 19, 2013

Commissioners keep quiet on jail management proposal

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The Lawrence County commissioners are keeping mum about a proposal they received for privatizing the jail.

Even the Lawrence County Prison Board, which met Wednesday, has not been privy to its contents, according to discussions at the meeting.

All discussions among the three commissioners about hiring an outside company to manage the county-owned jail have been conducted privately, without them calling executive sessions.

Nor was the proposal opened publicly, contrary to a letter sent out to seven prospective management companies.

“It’s not public record,” county administrator James Gagliano said after Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.

The commissioners had sent out requests for proposals earlier this year and at least one company toured the jail.

Their letter indicated that if the change is made, the firm chosen would take over the jail Jan. 1. The letter states the commissioners would open sealed proposals at a public meeting after the deadline.

Gagliano said the sole proposal received was opened July 12 in the commissioners offices and that they were not required to open it publicly because it was not a bid.

Last month, Gagliano said that once the deadline for submitting proposals had passed, the quote would be turned over to the Lawrence County Prison Board.

However, at Wednesday’s prison board meeting, there was no mention of the matter until District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa asked about its status.

Commissioner Dan Vogler said after Tuesday’s commissioners meeting that the quote was from Community Education Centers Inc., based in West Caldwell, N.J.

Vogler said the solicitor advised that any access to the contents of the document would have to be gained by filing a “right to know form.”

Thursday, the New Castle News submitted a formal written request for information to review the contents of the proposal of the company to manage the 295-bed jail. The request was emailed after the county’s fax line had rejected the transmission multiple times.

Commissioner Bob Del Signore told the prison board Wednesday he had not yet seen the management proposal.

“I don’t want to look at it,” he said. “I don’t want to be swayed one way or the other.”

Del Signore pointed out the jail employees, members of Construction and General Laborers Union Local 964, are starting contract negotiations with the county. Their pact expires Dec. 31.

“It’s not good to be looking at one thing and listening to someone else,” he commented.

Should privatization occur, the 96 people who work at the jail no longer would be county employees. About 80 are members of the bargaining unit. Most of the jail’s 67 full-time employees belong to the union.

The decision to privatize could affect the contracts of the bargaining unit employees.

“They’re supposed to bring it before us at some point,” Controller David Gettings, prison board president, said of the proposal. He said he has not yet seen it, either.

The commissioners had extended the cutoff date for receiving proposals for the jail from May 31 to July 12.

Gagliano earlier had commented that the jail privatization discussions were done in private because it is an “administrative matter.”

However, a media law attorney disagrees.

Melissa Melewsky of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association said last month that the private discussions raise Sunshine Act compliance issues.

The commissioners made a decision to seek requests for proposals, she said, and that should have happened publicly after public discussion about the matter.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)