Douglas County Commission illegally blocking vote, petition against jail expansion funding, legal action alleges

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Douglas County Commissioners Nancy Thellman, left, Patrick Kelly, center, and Michelle Derusseau, right, speak to a packed audience during their meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. Despite many calling for a halt to the project, the commissioners unanimously approved a $29.6 million expansion of the Douglas County Jail.

A legal action filed Monday alleges that Douglas County commissioners are not allowing citizens to vote or petition against a plan to fund an expansion of the local jail, despite an obligation to do so under state law.

The action is the latest in activists’ yearslong efforts to stop the county from expanding the Douglas County Jail to house more inmates. As the Journal-World has reported, county leaders say that the jail is overcrowded, making it unsafe for both staff and inmates; opponents argue that the county needs to try more alternatives to incarceration to lower the jail’s population.

Two local nonprofit organizations, Justice Matters and the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, along with five individuals who reside within the county, are petitioning for an injunction to stop the county from issuing bonds to fund the planned expansion, estimated to cost roughly $29.6 million, plus a separate estimated $1.5 million renovation of the jail’s central heating and cooling plant.

The county had approximately $9 million on hand to go toward the jail, the Journal-World has reported. County staff planned to pursue a bond issue with a 20-year debt service to finance the rest of the estimated $31.1 million total, which is about $22.1 million.

Monday’s legal action in Douglas County District Court alleges that the County Commission has acted to issue bonds without obtaining voters’ approval or having first published notice of its intent to do so, in violation of state law.

Publishing a legal notice of intent to pursue the bonds would have started a clock for a potential petition against their issue. Kansas law states that if within 30 days of the final publication of notice, a petition is filed with signatures of at least 5% of the electorate of the last general election, the county can’t issue the bonds without approval from voters. After a record-setting midterm turnout in 2018, that would mean about 2,360 county voters would need to sign a petition to mandate a vote on the bond issue.

However, the county has previously argued that the language of a 1994 referendum, which created a 1-cent sales tax “for general government purposes, including the issuance of sales tax revenue and general obligation bonds, and also including … The Expansion and operations of the county jail” gives it the authority to issue bonds without voters signing off.

Put simply, the plaintiffs and their attorneys disagree. In legal terms, as written in the petition filed Monday, “The right of (the plaintiffs) to require that (the Douglas County commissioners) be ordered to perform their official duty to submit the proposed bonds for approval by the voters or publish notice of the proposition is clear, it is apparent that no valid excuse can be given for not performing that duty, and a preemptory order of this court should issue.”

According to a Monday news release from Justice Matters, attorneys submitted legal arguments to the county on Feb. 15, “requesting that the County comply with the law.”

“This action kickstarted a thirty-day window in which the County Commission was unable to sign off to potential bondholders that there is no threat of legal action,” according to the release. “… Instead, the County Commission has chosen to deny voters’ rights, forcing Justice Matters to seek judicial action.”

The legal action does not seek any monetary damages for any of the plaintiffs.

John Bullock, attorney for Douglas County, said Monday afternoon that the county was reviewing the allegations and did not have comment at that time.

Attorneys William Skepnek, James Kaup and Teresa Woody are representing the plaintiffs.

Woody, who is litigation director of the nonprofit organization Kansas Appleseed, said in the release, “We believe the law requires that the County at least allow the voters the opportunity to petition for an election on the issuance of general obligation bonds, rather than making that decision without our citizens’ input.”

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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Related coverage: Douglas County Jail

Jan. 29, 2020: Despite commenters’ opposition, Douglas County Commission authorizes nearly $30 million jail expansion project

Jan. 25, 2020: Group wants Douglas County to let it finish studies before authorizing jail expansion

Jan. 22, 2020: Opponents question ethics of Douglas County’s plan to finance jail expansion project

Dec. 18, 2019: Expansion of Douglas County Jail expected to cost nearly $30 million; construction could start in early 2020

Dec. 15, 2019: With alternative programs in place, Douglas County Jail still overpopulated with at least 40 inmates housed out of the county

June 12, 2019: Douglas County Commission approves construction managers for jail expansion, behavioral health housing

May 14, 2019: Douglas County leaders call for further work on behavioral health, criminal justice

Jan. 23, 2019: Douglas County commissioner: As in case of jail expansion, duty may not always align with public opinion

Jan. 21, 2019: Opponents of Douglas County Jail expansion not assuaged by cheaper plan

Jan. 16, 2019: Cost estimate for pared-down Douglas County Jail expansion is $23M

Dec. 12, 2018: Undersheriff shares preliminary plans that would add a minimum of 84 beds to county jail

Dec. 11, 2018: County to look at concept plan for jail expansion; incoming commissioner explains campaign pledge on jail

Dec. 3, 2018: Douglas County laying groundwork for debt to fund jail expansion; plan won’t need voter approval

Nov. 21, 2018: Financial maneuvers could let Douglas County use bonds for jail improvements, officials say

Oct. 17, 2018: County Commission directs staff, sheriff’s office to develop $3 million jail expansion plan

Sept. 4, 2018: Sheriff’s office to present new inmate numbers as Douglas County renews jail overcrowding discussion

May 15, 2018: Douglas County voters reject controversial countywide sales tax; leaders say jail project will proceed after public input

April 17, 2018: Despite campaign literature to the contrary, county officials confirm there’s no legal finding that Douglas County Jail must be expanded

April 11, 2018: Criminal justice group’s spokeswoman says expanding Douglas County Jail would contribute to nation’s mass incarceration problem

March 4, 2018: Felonies, not pot smoking, filling up the Douglas County Jail, new report says

March 3, 2018: Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion

Jan. 15, 2018: 2014 speedy trial redefinition clogging Douglas County jail, district court

Nov. 8, 2017: Douglas County Sheriff’s Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds

May 14, 2017: Douglas County data showing swelling jail population despite fewer arrests

Jan. 3, 2016: Douglas County Jail spending an average of $90,000 a month sending inmates to other area jails


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