Views on the possible expansion of the Douglas County Jail and construction of a mental health crisis intervention center varied at a forum Monday for the four candidates vying of the two Douglas County Commission seats on this year’s general election ballot.
Answering questions at the Voter Education Coalition’s forum at Lawrence City Hall were 2nd District candidates Democrat Nancy Thellman and challenger Jesse Brinson Jr., who is running as an independent, and 3rd District candidates Democrat Bassem Chahine and Republican Michelle Derusseau.
Thellman is the incumbent in the 2nd Douglas County Commission District of east Lawrence precincts and the eastern portions of Douglas County, including Baldwin City and Eudora. Chahine and Derusseau are contesting for the 3rd District seat of west and south central Lawrence and western Douglas County. The 3rd District became an open seat when incumbent Commissioner Jim Flory chose not to run for re-election.
What emerged from the forum was that no candidate held to the position of the current Douglas County Commission, which would put the funding of the jail expansion and crisis intervention center on the same bond referendum put before county voters.
Although she is a member of the commission that publicly affirmed that position, Thellman said it would be the County Commission seated in January that would decide how to present a question or questions on funding to the public.
Thellman did, however, speak on the need for both facilities. Because the jail’s population is exceeding its beds, the county is spending more than $1 million a year to place inmates in the jails of other counties, she said.
Brinson called for more exploration of programs before asking taxpayers to pay for either of the two expensive facilities. The focus should be in investing in people and effective programs, not buildings, he said.
The County Commission’s decision in March to form the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and then charging it with exploring options to incarceration took the commission’s position off the table, Derusseau said. The next County Commission was obligated to let that process go forward before making any decision on the jail expansion, she said.
Her opponent, Chahine, said he supported the crisis intervention center and jail expansion after seeing first-hand the effects of inmate overcrowding. However, he supports giving county voters the opportunity to vote separately on the financing of the buildings because many in the county did not share his support for both facilities.
In many of his answers at the forum, Brinson said as a commissioner he would consult with the public or community groups before making a decision.
“Taxpayers should be heard,” he said. “That would be my top priority as a commissioner.”
He suggested commissioners ask seniors about their views in gaps in senior services, adding that many were disappointed in the proposed remodeling of the Douglas County Senior Center. He also said “both parties” should be consulted concerning any upgrades to security measures when state law mandates concealed weapons be allowed in county buildings absent appropriate security measures starting Jan. 1, 2018.
Appropriate security measures mean armed guards and electronic monitoring devices costing “millions and millions” of dollars, Thellman said. Her solution to the concern was to work with friendly legislators to modify the law.
“The costs are extraordinary, and we need those tax dollars for other purposes,” she said. “I agree Bert Nash (Community Mental Health) is a special case, but the fairgrounds, Courthouse and Public Works Building — it’s the entire budget if you want to make them secure.”
Derusseau supported the proposed joint county and city of Lawrence partnership to gut and remodel the Douglas County Senior Center, which Brinson questioned.
There was an effort several years ago to market Lawrence and Douglas County as a destination for retirees, Derusseau said. It was found there wasn’t enough senior services available to support that effort, she said. The remodeling of the Senior Services and the vision of new Douglas County Senior Services Executive Director Marvel Williamson would help address that, she said.
“The place is a dump,” she said of the current Senior Services site. “They are very excited to get it fixed up.”
Local businessman Chahine returned several times at the forum to the theme of economic development and the need to attract primary industries to the county, which would provide livable wages. Lack of that kind of effort or investment would make Lawrence another Topeka, he said.
All the candidates agreed on the importance of answering emails, texts or phone calls within 24 hours. Chahine said commissioners should be responsive to their employers.
“If I get elected, I’ll be your employee,” he said. “If I don’t answer the phone, you can yell at me. If I don’t answer in 24 hours, I’ll apologize.”