After nearly a year of back-and-forth, often bitter, political discourse, the Delaware County Council has voted to systematically remake the board that oversees the county prison to include representation from elected officials and county residents.
Officials have begun soliciting applications to join the new Jail Oversight Board, which replaces the Board of Prison Inspectors that had held authority over the George W. Hill Correctional Facility since the late 1990s.
Hill is the only privately run county prison in the state and has been in the council’s focus during the past two years, since Kevin Madden and Brian Zidek became the first Democrats to ever serve on the council.
Their complaints, largely over the ability of the inspectors board to make financial and policy decisions without approval by the council, have been echoed by a growing number of activists.
“The Delaware County GOP has used the prison board to hide patronage and corruption from the public eye that has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the years,” Madden said Tuesday. “No longer will a blank check be handed over to an unelected board to control a full 30% of our county tax dollars. Its elimination is an enormous victory for transparency and good governance.”
The prison costs about $50 million annually to operate.
The Democrats had been pushing for change since last November and had two attempts to do so shot down by their Republican colleagues.
But last Wednesday, the measure passed unanimously. Council Chairman John McBlain attributed that to the recent approval of the plan by stakeholders in the county’s criminal justice system, including President Judge Kevin F. Kelly.
“During the time when the county jails have been forced to expand their mission beyond simply housing detainees and those serving short sentences ... we saw value in the proposed expanded oversight,” McBlain said at the meeting, adding that “updating the governance of the county jail will be yet another step in assuring public confidence in the oversight of that facility.”
McBlain took pains to explain that his and his GOP colleagues’ approval was not “based on any unhappiness or disappointment” with the current prison board, and lauded the work that its members have done.
And he derided Madden, saying the freshman council member’s criticisms of the prison board members were “insulting to them and insulting to our residents.”
The Board of Prison Inspectors has five members, two appointed by the council and three by the county’s Board of Judges. The new system expands the number of board members to include the county sheriff, county controller, county executive director, two judges, the council’s chairperson, and three members of the public.
Those three members will be chosen by county Executive Director Marianne Grace and submitted to the council by Nov. 27. Grace said Tuesday that she had already received nearly a dozen applications. The county began soliciting them after the vote.
The resolution approving the new board gives explicit preference to applicants with relevant “background and experience,” and bars county and state employees from consideration.
“My job is to really review these resumés being sent to me and get a sense of who the people are and what kind of job I think they would be able to do,” Grace said. “The work this board will do is very important, and my goal is to get qualified individuals that I would ideally like to represent a cross-section of the residents of Delaware County.”
In the meantime, the current board will continue to serve.
“The decision concerning the jail oversight board is the prerogative of county council, and the prison board will fully cooperate to ensure a smooth transition,” John Hosier, chairman of the Board of Prison Inspectors, said in a statement Tuesday.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that the county district attorney is a member of the Jail Oversight Board.