County commissioners suspend meetings of full justice committee, issue challenge to judges to do work of their new subgroup in public

Monday’s meeting of Monroe County’s community justice response committee (CJRC) was the last one of the full committee—at least for a while.

County commissioners voted at their Wednesday work session to “suspend” future CJRC meetings, and instead to form subgroups to focus on specific issues, like judicial process, facilities and siting, and treatment.

It was a somewhat anticipated move, even if the timing had not been certain.

News of the committee’s suspended work filtered quickly through the community. At Wednesday night’s Bloomington city council meeting, councilmember Jim Sims said during his report time, “What I’d really like to hear is an explanation—I’d like to know why, and then why now.”

Tensions on the committee have recently escalated. Most recently, sheriff Ruben Marté has objected to the way commissioners portrayed publicly the process by which DLZ was selected as the architect for the new jail.

County attorney Lee Baker participated in the process that led to DLZ’s selection. Before Wednesday’s vote to suspend the CJRC, commissioners heard from Baker a full-throated defense of the integrity of the process that was used to select DLZ.

At Wednesday’s work session, Baker said, “…The innuendo in the email, at least as it concerns me, is false.” Baker continued saying that the implications were “unsupported by anything other than the writer’s [Marté’s] unsubstantiated personal opinion.” He added, “And I think it’s unfortunate. And I take offense to it, personally and professionally.”

County commissioner Penny Githens Lee Jones said about Marté’s email, “It’s extremely unpleasant to see [county staff] being attacked in such a kind of ‘gotcha’ way.”

County commissioner Julie Thomas said, “Our staff members have been maligned. And I don’t think that’s fair.” Thomas added, “I’m not sure what the purpose was of all of that. I guess it was just another ‘gotcha’ moment.”

The topic of using subgroups to analyze topics has occasionally surfaced at CRJC meetings since the start of the year.

At the CJRC’s Feb. 6 meeting commissioner Penny Githens said, “I do also want us to start to think about breaking into those subgroups.” She added, “We’re going to need a subgroup to actually look at the facility. We need a subgroup to talk about judicial process.”

Other members of the CJRC, have pushed back against the idea of forming subgroups, based in part at least on concerns for transparency of the committee’s work.

The commissioners had established the committee—with evolving membership, including some county councilors, judges, the sheriff, the public defender and the county prosecutor—to provide advice how to respond to the work work of two consultants. The consultants delivered their studies of Monroe County’s criminal justice system in June 2021.

One of the reports states: “The jail facility is incapable of consistently ensuring and sustaining constitutional levels of inmate care and custody.”

The topic of the CJRC did not appear on the formal agenda of Wednesday’s work session for the county commissioners. But commissioner Julie Thomas had indicated at Monday’s CJRC meeting that she wanted to use the commissioners work session to talk about “the next CJRC meeting and the many tasks that we have to address.”

Because the three commissioners are members of the CJRC, it’s a public body, subject to Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL). Thomas told The B Square after Wednesday’s work session that commissioners would be members of the subgroup on facilities, which means that subgroup will also have to conduct its meetings in accordance with the ODL.

But the facilities subgroup would be working on the topic of site selection, Thomas said, which means some of the meetings would be held in executive session. She noted that even if the executive sessions themselves are not open to the public, they still have to be noticed to the public that they are taking place.

Subgroups that don’t include the commissioners would not necessarily be subject to the ODL. Monroe County’s board of judges, for example, is not subject to the ODL.

Still, at Wednesday’s work session Thomas said she wants the new subgroup on judicial processes to make its work open to the public. “Those meetings that they have should be public meetings. They should be transparent,” Thomas said.

About the meetings of the subgroup on judicial processes, Thomas continued, “And they should take public comment at those meetings. … I think that’s the only thing that’s fair to ask.” Thomas said she was speaking “on behalf of all the taxpayers and all the people in the community who are concerned about this.”

Thomas said about the subgroup on judicial processes, “We need their information, but the public needs their transparency. So that’s my challenge to them.”

The timing of the next meeting of the full CJRC sounds like it will, to some extent, be tied to the completion of some kind of report by the subgroup on judicial processes. Thomas said, “I think we suspend and ask the judicial group… when they can report to us, and that’ll be our next meeting.”

But Thomas was not looking to make a report from the judicial group a necessary condition for the next meeting of the full CJRC. She said, “And if they aren’t ready, I think we should still meet in maybe a month or two, maybe three.”

About the next steps and the composition of the subgroups, Githens said she would be sending an email to members of the CJRC and others, adding, ”We will try to move forward.”

Some of the conversation among commissioners at their Wednesday work session centered on their perception that their work as commissioners has been unfairly assessed by the public and by other members of the CJRC.

About the decisions to be made concerning a new jail, commissioner Lee Jones said, “We had hoped to make them in the course of civilized conversations among each other. And it just does not seem that it’s been possible to do that.”

Jones said, “A lot of the time, it feels more like we’re on trial—and by ‘we’ I mean the commissioners.” Jones said, “It seems that everyone is pulling in different directions, and just looking for ways to show any small action…in some way, has not seemed appropriate to someone.”

[Added April 20, 2023 at 9:20 a.m. Pushback against suspension of CJRC meetings—in particular the cancellation of the next CJRC meeting set for May 1—came  in an email message sent to the press on Thursday morning, by county councilor Peter Iversen.

Iversen wrote: “It is my opinion that today’s tour of the Thomson property and a soon-to-be scheduled executive session could all be fruitful conversation for a May 01 CJRC.”

The tour of the county-owned Thomson property, as a potential site for a new jail, is supposed to be made by a group consisting of: Bloomington public engagement director Kaisa Goodman, Bloomington’s corporation counsel Beth Cate, Bloomington planning director Scott Robinson, county attorney Jeff Cockerill, jail commander Kyle Gibbons, county councilor Kate Wiltz, and possibly one other county council member. The scheduling of the tour was announced by Goodman at Monday’s CJRC meeting.  

Forwarded with Iversen’s message was the email sent to CJRC members the previous evening by commissioner Penny Githens telling them about the suspension of the CJRC’s meetings.]

5 thoughts on “County commissioners suspend meetings of full justice committee, issue challenge to judges to do work of their new subgroup in public

  1. This sure seems like a kneejerk reaction to the criticism received by the commissioners. What they need to ask themselves is whether any of it is justified and how can those accusations be addressed. As it stands, the CJRC seems to be rather exclusive and excluding of other stakeholders in this entire process. With this bickering and backbiting going on, how will we ever get the new facility that is necessary to provide the constitutional care needed by the incarcerated? By the way, we should remember how many of those currently incarcerated are there because they can’t make bail and have not been convicted of a crime. Fifteen years is a long time to get things done right; and they aren’t done yet.

  2. The Commissioners have been unresponsive to the committee members. For instance, they still haven’t produced the report of their trip months ago to AZ to visit jail facilities.

    My suggestion is for the council and Sheriff to create a new advisory committee with Kate Wiltz or Jennifer Crossley as chair. They could forward their recommendations to the Commissioners. Imagine how much work they could get done when they aren’t stonewalled by the Commissioners.

    Maybe the Commissioners could now focus on the Convention Center which they also refuse to work on.

    1. Refuse to work on the convention center because the mayor wants to run the whole show? Yeah, keep trying to sell that BS.

  3. The commissioners and their attorney give a full throated defense of their staff and then they are tired of meeting because they come off as too incompetent to manage this project. At least in public. But publicly announce that all their problems will go away on Jan 1 when Mayor Hamilton is replaced only reinforces my observation that these commissioners are way in over their heads.

    If it is going to be almost one-party rule here, Monroe County Democrats, we need to do better!!

  4. Any committee or subcommittee or working group going forward must have someone who has served time in our jail. How else can the county really understand what a new jail needs?

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