County commissioner: Justice Matters event ‘inappropriate’

Members of the Douglas County Commission are wary about a Thursday event organized by a group of local church leaders at which the commissioners say they think they will be asked to make commitments in front of hundreds of people that they are not prepared to make.

Justice Matters, a consortium of 21 local religious organizations working to address justice issues, will host a presentation on the current state of access to mental health care and affordable housing in Douglas County.

All three county commissioners met with representatives of Justice Matters last week and said they came away believing the event would be used to elicit commitments regarding a project that involves expanding the county jail and possibly building a separate mental health crisis intervention center.

Justice Matters event

The event will begin at 6:45 p.m. at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive, on Thursday. Justice Matters hopes to draw 2,000 people.

Tickets are reserved for affiliated church congregations, but leftover seats can be filled by members of the public waiting in line starting at 6:35 p.m.

“I told them in no uncertain terms I didn’t think that was appropriate,” said Commissioner Jim Flory, who will not be able to attend Thursday’s event. “The county commission does its business at county commission chambers at 11th and Massachusetts. That’s where we make decisions, that’s where we make commitments.”

Rev. John McDermott, the co-president of Justice Matters, on Monday denied the group was seeking commitments. He said the event is about giving officials a chance “to clarify their position on some very, very critical, important issues.”

“I guess I’m kind of dumbfounded because we’ve sat down to tell them what we’re going to ask them,” McDermott said.

Douglas County officials are in an information-gathering stage regarding the jail and mental health facility in response to rising inmate populations and a growing need for mental health care. The county is trying to determine how large the project needs to be, based on how many non-violent, mentally ill inmates typically pass through the current jail, among other factors. No designs have been made.

Flory said members of Justice Matters told him they want commitments that a mental health crisis intervention center would be built and that the county would split a jail expansion and mental health facility into two separate projects.

Flory and other commissioners explained that because the information gathering has not been completed, they could not commit to that. He also said he believes the jail and mental health facility are directly related and therefore inseparable.

“It may very well be that a crisis center will be appropriate, but I can’t say that now,” he said.

Formed in the fall of 2014, Justice Matters is part of a national network of similar organizations under an umbrella group called Direct Action and Research Training (DART).

The network has another branch in Topeka, called the Justice and Unity Ministry Project (JUMP), which gained notoriety last year after a tense event with the superintendent of the Topeka school district, Julie Ford.

Thursday’s event in Lawrence has been titled the “Nehemiah Action Assembly,” which is nearly identical to the name given to last year’s event in Topeka.

According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, Ford appeared on stage in front of about 1,000 people and was instructed to reply only “yes” or “no” to a series of questions about closing student achievement gaps. JUMP wanted a commitment on expanding a program for at-risk youths to more schools, but Ford said a lack of funding would prevent that. Audience members wore hardhats and were instructed when to applaud and when to be silent, depending on Ford’s answers.

The Charleston City Paper in Charleston, S.C., also reported on a similar event regarding another one of DART’s chapters last year.

“Nehemiah” refers to a Biblical figure who went to rebuild Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C. A famine and taxes from the king forced many of its citizens into economic hardship, so Nehemiah arranged a large assembly where money lenders were asked in front everyone to restore what they had taken when awarding loans.

Rev. Kathy Williams, a co-vice president of Justice Matters, would not compare the planned Lawrence event to what happened in Topeka, but said it would be “more like a conversation.”

Justice Matters has spent several months researching gaps in affordable housing and mental health care in the area. Williams said Thursday’s event would propose solutions to both county and city officials.

“We’d like to get concrete expectations on where we’re moving,” said Ben MacConnell, an organizer for Justice Matters and DART.

Commissioner Nancy Thellman said she expects some pressure at the event, but ultimately was not sure if Justice Matters would press as hard as JUMP did in Topeka. She and commissioner Mike Gaughan said that, as they understood it, there would be room for negotiation Thursday.

All three commissioners praised Justice Matters for its interest and steadfastness in the issue. However, Thellman questioned whether their tactics were necessary.

“We seem to be working for mostly the same goals and walking in the same direction,” she said. “We’re just different organizations and have different rules to follow.”

Added Gaughan: “I think what they’re doing is awesome and their conversation is timely,” he said. “But we still have to make decisions on our timeline.”

Justice Matters has voiced reservations about Douglas County’s upcoming jail expansion and mental health project before.

In April, the group rounded up a group of county and city officials to tour a model mental health facility in San Antonio, Texas. During a discussion on the last day of the trip, members of Justice Matters argued the public would not allow a sales tax for the project if the jail expansion were attached to it. Douglas County administrator Craig Weinaug said splitting the two projects would not be practical.

The county has not determined a funding strategy for the jail and mental health facility, although a sales tax referendum is an option, pending approval from the state government. Weinaug has given a ballpark cost estimate of between $20 million and $30 million.