The work of a citizen committee created to review operations at the Montgomery County Jail has kept its work shielded from the public since August, cancelling public meetings and meeting privately in smaller groups.
Montgomery County commissioners created the Justice Advisory Committee in 2017 to provide a report including recommendations for improvements to jail operations and facilities. The committee hired CGL Companies of Lexington, Ky., to assess operations at the jail and report back to the group.
The committee hopes to present its final report to county commissioners by the end of the year.
Some of CGL’s findings became public during committee meetings held in July and August at the downtown Dayton Metro Library. In presentations made to the group, the consultants noted inadequate staffing and poor facility design, and said changes were needed in some operational policies, including when and how to use force or put an inmate in a restraint chair.
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But the co-chairs of the committee, Rabbi Bernard Barsky and Dr. Gary LeRoy, said they became frustrated by news reports following those meetings, saying the information presented by CGL consultants — while critical of some jail operations and policies — was not a finished study.
“Obviously, we want to look at the negative aspects to see how we can improve them, but it really belongs in the final report after the committee’s had a chance to evaluate the information and make their own judgment about it and make their own recommendations and put it in some kind of context,” Barsky said.
More of the consultants’ work surfaced last week as part of a federal lawsuit filed by former inmates alleging overcrowding and lack of health services in the jail.
A federal court hearing is scheduled today in that lawsuit, which was filed as a class action against Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer. The named plaintiffs, Nicholas Alston and Keith Barber, allege poor treatment in the jail, which the county has denied.
Their lawsuit is one of at least 13 filed against the jail that allege mistreating inmates.
In a Nov. 26 filing, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice to allow completed portions of the CGL Companies’ draft study as evidence, citing cases where courts found similar documents constituted public records. Rice approved the motion.
The study identified problems that include caring for those with behavioral health issues, assessing mental health conditions and preventing suicides. It stated that deteriorating mechanical systems plague the facility, including the building’s electric, plumbing, HVAC and security and control systems.
“The facility will remain difficult to operate safely and lacks minimally acceptable program and treatment facilities,” the draft report reads.
Other areas of the draft report rang more positive. Consultants noted the facility meets accreditation standards, has clear lines of authority and excels at collecting and documenting performance metrics facility-wide.
“The sheriff and jail staff should be complimented on their efforts developing state of the art policies, procedures and practices that meet the requirements of national standards,” the draft report reads. “This has been accomplished in spite of budget shortfalls, staffing challenges and a deteriorating physical plant.”
The sudden secrecy surrounding the work done by the citizen group has been frustrating to citizen watchdog Yvonne Curington, 70, of Harrison Twp.
“I’ve been coming to every meeting for a year and half,” she said. “It seems to me they don’t have any personnel issues to discuss, so I can’t figure out why the fact-finding can’t be done publicly.”
An Oct. 17 email from Barsky to Joe Spitler, director of criminal justice for the county, said he may seek to seek to keep part of the CGL report “out of public view as long as possible.”
Plummer cited the class action lawsuit, which was filed in July, as a reason for not allowing committee members to interview inmates at the jail as part of their work.
“As you know, a class-action lawsuit was recently filed, reciting and espousing many of the same statements and comments from the last Justice Advisory Committee meeting,” the letter from Plummer read.
Barsky and LeRoy said the justice committee’s work is continuing during unannounced subcommittee meetings that are closed to the public.
“The subcommittees are going to finish their work and see what’s going on with some of the individual recommendations — mental health, behavioral health, staffing and so forth and just kind of see what the consultants have to say and if this is something we need to bring to the full committee,” LeRoy said.
The unannounced closed meetings may be illegal, said Dennis Hetzel, president and executive director of the Ohio News Media Association.
“In my opinion, this committee is clearly a creation of county government with important responsibilities and authority subject to our sunshine laws,” Hetzel said. “I believe the committee and any subcommittees they might form fit the five-part test that the attorney general’s office applies to the definition of what’s a public body in terms of open meetings. As far as records they generate, I have no question the public records law applies.”
The Dayton Daily News has requested all announcements, agendas and minutes of committee and subcommittee meetings from the county.
LeRoy said the group also worried that news from committee meetings might sway Nov. 6 election results where there was an open seat on the Montgomery County Commission, Plummer was running for a Statehouse seat as was Dan Foley, a current Montgomery County commissioner.
“We certainly didn’t want to inadvertently be accused of doing something that was going to get in the way of elections … somehow improve somebody’s electability or put in jeopardy somebody’s electability,” he said.