Ohio county puts all jail planning on hold
Council President Pernel Jones, Jr. called the actions “reckless fearmongering,” and said that the county has all the information it needs to move forward with a new jail
By Kaitlin Durbin
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County needs to build a new jail, councilmembers agreed Tuesday, but they will wait until the next executive is elected to finalize plans.
Council President Pernel Jones, Jr., announced that the body is postponing decisions on all jail-related legislation until the next executive takes office. Discussion on the items had previously been tabled at the earlier Committee of the Whole meeting
“While I strongly believe that further delay is a mistake, it is their mistake to make,” Jones said of the next executive. “I urge the next county executive to swiftly identify a plan and a funding source for addressing the critical needs at the county jail. Council will be ready to work in good faith to consider your proposal.”
The decision puts on hold all discussion – and pending votes – related to plans to buy 2700 Transport Road as the potential future home of the new jail, using the Slavic Village property as a swap site for the shipping container storage business, extending the quarter-percent sales tax to pay for construction on a new jail and potentially new county courthouse, preparing to issue bonds, and creating a Justice Center Capital Projects Fund to store sales tax collections.
The legislation was withdrawn, so all of the items will have to be reintroduced, except the creation of the capital fund.
The pause comes one week after the Justice Center Steering Committee voted against pursuing the Transport Road site, with some members believing it to be too toxic to house inmates and employees. Three of the members threatened to sue the county if it purchased the site.
Both Cuyahoga County Executive candidates, Chris Ronayne and Lee Weingart, have also said they will not build a jail at the property, and recently called for council to halt planning until one of them could be part of it.
Jones called the actions “reckless fearmongering,” and said that the county has all the information it needs to move forward with a new jail after investing over $5 million and four years into the process. Specifically, he defended the selection of the Transport Road site, saying numerous experts have said the site can be remediated for safe use and other major housing developments built on former county Brownfield sites prove it.
Jones said he and many of his colleagues still believe that the county should proceed with construction of a new jail. He and several other council members accused Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, Common Pleas Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan, and Public Defender Cullen Sweeney of acting in their own self interests.
“This reeks of self-preservation,” Councilman Scott Tuma said.
Jones later agreed.
“These actions suggest that they believe renovating their office space is a higher priority than ensuring the safety and wellbeing of those in county custody or helping our communities recover from the pandemic,” he said. “The threatened lawsuit is a delay tactic entirely without merit. It does not in any way impact our decision moving forward.”
The public defender, Cullen Sweeney, called the comments “unproductive,” and said he has nothing to gain from courthouse renovations because his office isn’t located there. Six steering committee members voted against the Transport Road site and both executive candidates opposed it, which he said helped inform his vote.
“I don’t think that’s obstruction, I think that’s thoughtful decision making,” Sweeney said.
O’Malley initially said he did not “want to get into a tit for tat” and defended his decision as morally the right thing to do. But he also took a shot at other council members’ priorities.
“I don’t understand how some members of this council can be so passionate about blue plastic bags destroying our community but then be willing to place thousands of county prisoners and sheriff’s department employees on a contaminated jail site,” he later told cleveland.com. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Sheehan responded to the comments on Wednesday, saying the steering committee’s vote speaks for itself and he is looking forward to continuing their work with the next executive and with council.
The other council members also weighed into the jail debate Tuesday, some for the first time.
A few of the council members expressed contempt toward the decision to stop planning, noting that discussions have been ongoing for four years while conditions in the jail have worsened. They feel the county can’t delay any longer.
In a 30-minute monologue, Councilman Michael Gallagher, who has represented council on the steering committee, was incendiary and at times threatening toward those who he believes have stalled the process. He called the steering committee ineffective and accused its members of having too many special interests. He also heavily criticized cleveland.com’s Editor Chris Quinn and the paper’s editorial board for helping to derail planning by spreading what he said was misinformation about the Transport Road site and other jail conditions.
Gallagher vowed not to participate in future jail planning.
“Now is not the time to challenge this county council’s authority,” he warned. “Good luck gang; you’re going to need it.”
Councilwoman Sunny Simon drew outrage from one audience member after casting blame on the courts and prosecutor’s office for overcrowding in the jail, which contributed to eight deaths in one year. Before deputies removed the man from council chambers, he blamed the county for creating the overcrowding by closing suburban jails and taking on city inmates.
Other council members spoke to the prudence of working with the next executive to shape the future of detention and jailing practices in the county, with more focus on bail reform and reducing the jail population. They want to see swift action, too, they said, but feel the county can afford to wait a few more months before resuming planning.
Some members made promises regarding what aspects of future legislation they would support.
Councilwoman Nan Baker said she will never support permanently extending the sales tax to pay for a new jail. Councilman Dale Miller said he will only approve a jail that is smaller than the current facility and pledged not to vote for the Transport Road site if there is an alternative.
“It can probably be remediated to reasonable safety,” Miller said of the controversial location, “but we cannot be totally confident about the long-term impacts of operating on a former heavy industry site.”