County commissioners to Justice Matters representatives: Let Criminal Justice Coordinating Council make its own decisions

The Douglas County commission meets in the historic courtroom on the second floor of the old county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

Douglas County commissioners told two Justice Matters members at the commission’s meeting Wednesday that the newly formed Criminal Justice Coordinating Council should make its own decisions on needs and membership.

In remarks to commissioners during reserved public comment time, the Rev. John McDermott, co-president of Justice Matters, asked that commissioners support recommendations concerning the county’s criminal justice review, which the organization agreed on at its annual Nehemiah Action Assembly on April 13. The meeting drew about 2,000 people to the Lied Center.

McDermott also expressed disappointment that none of the three commissioners attended the meeting. McDermott said he had “moved on” from commissioners missing the Justice Matters meeting, but many in the faith community felt snubbed or marginalized by the absences.

At that meeting, the membership of the consortium of 22 local religious organizations agreed on three suggestions regarding the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s evaluation of the county criminal justice system.

McDermott said one of the suggestions was moot after the County Commission agreed April 13 that there wasn’t enough time to get a ballot question on the November general election ballot, which would have authorized funding for a jail expansion and construction of a mental health crisis intervention center.

He did ask for commissioners’ support for the other two Justice Matters proposals: adding an expert in race and criminal justice issues to the council, and hiring an outside consultant to investigate options to divert people from time in the county jail.

Randy Krehbiel, a retired social worker who has researched criminal justice and incarceration issues for Justice Matters, said such an outside review would help gain the public’s confidence the county had “looked under every rock” for alternatives to jail expansion.

In their responses, commissioners said the county’s 19-month review of the county’s criminal justice system did involve expert, outside consultants in Margaret Severson and Jason Matejkowski — two doctorate-level professors with the Kansas University School of Social Welfare contracted through the university to work with the county.

The Coordinating Council now needed time to digest the findings, commissioners said, noting the council has only met once and was unable to get through its planned agenda at that April 6 meeting.

“My thinking is let it have time to work and rely on the people selected to help us,” County Commission Chairman Jim Flory said. “The council may say it needs more information and ask for experts. We (commissioners) don’t want to micromanage what it needs. Let its members tell us what it needs, and not have Justice Matters decide.”

Krehbiel conceded Coordinating Council members could resent an unsolicited mandate to seek outside consultants or expertise.

Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who has replaced Flory as the County Commission’s representative on the Coordinating Council, said an outside expert may be hired. It is assumed the Coordinating Council will request staff support, including a facilitator who will schedule and coordinate meetings and provide members with the appropriate data and documentation. That person could be someone with experience with organizations involved with criminal justice reform, he said.

“I know those groups are out there, and I also know there are people out there who used to work for those groups,” he said.

Commissioners also said they would wait for direction from the Coordinating Council before expanding its membership.

Gaughan said, however, he would bring the matter up during Tuesday’s second meeting of the Coordinating Council. The Coordinating Council will next meet at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the County Commission chamber in the Douglas County Courthouse.

The Coordinating Council would reach out to the community to find people to serve on subcommittees to address specific issues, Flory added.

The Justice Matters representatives received no apologies from commissioners for their absence from the April 13 meeting.

Flory restated the position he took before last year’s Nehemiah Action Assembly.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to attend a public meeting and debate or take a position on an issue,” he said. “This chamber room is where we have those discussions. This is where we take positions.”

Commissioner Nancy Thellman added the Nehemiah Action Assembly was a religious gathering, and commissioners had to be aware of their constitutional duty to keep church and state separate.

“We have to be very careful about not crossing the line,” she said, identifying herself as an ordained minister. “We have our own place of work, as you do.”

Also at the meeting, commissioners approved a revision to the K-10 and Farmer’s Turnpike Plan to reclassify 13.5 acres from residential/office to office/research. The change would allow construction of mini-warehouses on the site wedged between Kansas Highway 10 and East 902 Road with approval of a conditional use permit.