Group closing its talks to public
The panel talked about a new way to keep the facility at the 296-inmate level.
By ROGER G. SMITH
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The group discussing a remedial plan for the Mahoning County jail is closing its meetings to the public and press.
The dozen-member group of county officials met a second time Tuesday in what will be a series of weekly meetings through year's end -- and perhaps beyond.
Commissioner John McNally IV, chairman and spokesman for the jail working group, said Prosecutor Paul J. Gains' opinion is that the group doesn't constitute a public body.
The rationale is that there is no quorum of any public body, such as a majority of commissioners, within the group, so it's not subject to state open meetings laws, McNally said. If the group were a public body, members would be talking behind closed doors anyway because the entire subject is part of federal litigation over the jail, he said.
A resident's dissent
David Piper of Boardman, who for years has followed the workings of county government, argues the group's meetings should be open because the group is made up of public officials talking about public business. Inmates already won the litigation that spawned the working group, Piper said.
Closed-door methods of the past created today's public mistrust and trouble at the polls when the county seeks sales taxes, he said.
"You see how well it worked in the past," Piper said. "You can't lock people out who are voters."
The Vindicator had asked McNally that Tuesday's session and future meetings be open to the public and press.
The group's discussions are designed to lead to changes made by players in the justice system, McNally said. The group has no authority to force anyone in the justice system to change how they do business, he said.
"The commissioners' office isn't going to force the court to make changes," he said.
The work group is made up of officials suggested recently by Vincent M. Nathan, the special master monitoring the jail. Nathan is acting as a fact finder for U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr., who is taking steps to make the jail's size and security constitutionally sound. Judge Dowd appointed Nathan after inmates won a class-action lawsuit in March.
The group will stick with the special master's suggestion that progress reports be filed by Oct. 1 and Nov. 15, McNally said. The jail plan is to be ready by year's end.
The group might keep meeting after the plan is written to continue the cooperative dialogue, he said.
The group has invited the police chiefs or their designees in Youngstown, Boardman and Austintown to contribute to the discussions, though not to join the group as regular members, McNally said. The special master suggested including those departments in the talks.
An extra step
On Tuesday, the group talked about the special master's suggestion of adding a step to the release mechanism used to keep the jail population at the 296-inmate cap level, McNally said.
The so-called "14th step" would use an inmate's criminal background and social factors to create a risk assessment. The screening might keep more prisoners with violent tendencies in jail or bring back such inmates who have been released, easing the concern of judges, McNally said.
The sheriff's department is expected to try the screening method next week. The results could be interesting, he said. The screening may show that the inmates who should be locked up actually are, he said.
If the screening seems to work, the group will seek approval from county judges to use it, McNally said.
The group also talked about reviewing the city's deal with the county to house prisoners and if any changes are needed, he said.