Thursday, December 12, 2013
SKOWHEGAN — A legislative group studying the state’s unified jail system includes county commissioners, county sheriffs, administrators and two legislators.
Inmates read and play board games in the day room in the medium security wing at the Somerset County Jail in East Madison in Feburary. Somerset County officials say they were omitted from the jails panel as punishment.
Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans
Phil Roy, Somerset County Commissioner
Staff photo by David Leaming
What the 15-member panel doesn’t have, however, is representation from Somerset County, where county officials are suing the state Board of Corrections. Somerset County is also home to the state’s second-largest jail, whose recent troubles have highlighted growing concerns about Maine’s consolidated jail system and its funding.
Somerset County commissioners think exclusion from the legislative group is retaliation for the lawsuit.
Others say the county is at fault because it missed its own deadlines and did not present names for consideration.
“It looks stacked to me,” said Somerset County Commissioner Lynda Quinn, of Skowhegan. “I can’t imagine anyone taking this seriously. It’s all about punishing Somerset County.”
Somerset County Commissioner Phil Roy, of Fairfield, said commissioners Quinn and Robin Frost, of Palmyra, asked to sit on the commission, but neither was selected.
“I have no problem with the individuals that have been appointed to this committee,” Roy said, “but you only have one representative of county government north of Augusta — Commissioner Peter Baldacci, from Penobscot County — and zero from Somerset County.”
The jail commission members include legislators Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, and Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop; county administrators Bob Devlin (Kennebec), Peter Crichton (Cumberland) and Greg Zinser (York); county commissioners Lawrence Dawson (Sagadahoc), Peter Baldacci (Penobscot) and James Cloutier (Cumberland); jail administrators Capts. John Lebel (Androscoggin) and Marsha Alexander (Kennebec); and Sheriffs Maurice Ouellette (York) and Joel Merry (Sagadahoc).
Former Central Maine Power Co. executive David Flanagan, who was general counsel for the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee investigation of the response to Hurricane Katrina, will be the commission’s chairman. Commissioner of Public Safety John Morris, Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, and Col. Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset and chairman of the Board of Corrections, have been invited to participate in the meetings.
Commissioner Robin Frost agreed with Roy, saying he thinks he was rejected from the study commission because of his continued support of the lawsuit against the Board of Corrections.
“They don’t want to hear the truth about what is fair and what is right,” Frost said. “The entire board thinks we were left out of this committee because of the lawsuit.”
The Legislature’s Commission to Study the State Board of Corrections and the Unified County Corrections System will recommend ways to strengthen the jail system with a goal of finding long-term funding solutions.
Corrections expert Rod Miller, of the U.S. Department of Justice, presented research to the board that said the state’s jails were in crisis and being forced to make decisions that compromise safety and put the public at risk by cutting officer positions.
The commission is set to meet six times between now and early December. Meetings are slated to get under way by mid-September at the State House in Augusta.
Others outside of Somerset County see the county’s absence from the commission differently. They say legislative leadership in the State House and Senate never intentionally sought to exclude Somerset County from the panel.
Westrum said every county in Maine had the opportunity to submit names for seating on the study commission. He said Frost submitted his own name for consideration to the Maine County Commissioners Association, but that board did not select him; therefore, Frost’s name never reached leadership in the House and Senate for consideration on the commission.
He said Somerset County officials themselves missed the deadlines and that “it’s no one’s fault but their own.”
“They waited too long,” he said of Somerset County commissioners and administrators. “I can honestly say people weren’t beating down the door to be on this commission. Do I like duplicate members from certain counties? No, but leadership went with what was given to them as recommendations.”
Jodi Quintero, communications director for the Office of the Speaker of the House, agreed with Westrum, saying no name from Somerset County was ever recommended to leadership through any of the four county associations in Somerset — county commissioners, county administrators and managers, the sheriff or the jail administrator.
She said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, welcomes anyone from Somerset County to sit in on the commission meetings and to offer their ideas once the public meetings begin.
“We never had the opportunity to chose someone from Somerset County because we were never given a recommendation of a name from someone from Somerset County,” Quintero said. “I don’t know what happened; I just know that leadership did not make a decision to exclude Somerset County. We were never given a name from Somerset County to chose from. There is no discrimination toward any county.”
Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, disagrees. He said he asked that Quinn serve on the study commission and wrote an email to Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, saying so.
The email was sent July 31, according to a copy sent to the Morning Sentinel.
“I’m not pleased that we don’t have somebody from Somerset County representing the commission,” Whittemore said. “I did write a letter to the Senate president strongly suggesting Lynda Quinn to be appointed to sit on that committee. To my knowledge, I did not get a response. It’s a little suspicious. It’s not really fair, which is what I stated in the letter.”
Erika Dodge, spokeswoman for the Senate Democrats, said in an email Friday that Alfond did respond to Whittemore, though it’s not clear what Alfond said or why Whittemore didn’t receive the email.
Frost said he submitted his name, with the blessing of the five-member board of Somerset County commissions, on July 10. Whittemore offered Quinn’s name on July 31.
The deadline for submitting names was July 26, 30 days after passage of the legislative order to form the study commission June 27.
Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, said he, too, complained about the lack of representation on the study commission, but no one would listen to him, either.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, a member of the House leadership, said someone appears to have dropped the ball, but it isn’t clear to him who’s at fault.
“It’s disappointing that there isn’t someone from Somerset on this commission, but no one’s name was put forward from Somerset,” he said. “For me, I’m not willing to accept blame for the Legislature for that happening. It’s not clear to me where in the process the ball was dropped. I don’t want to lay blame on anybody, but it’s clear that Somerset got left out.”
Westrum, at the Board of Corrections, said each of the four county associations was given proper notice that if a county official was interested in being considered for the study commission, the associations had to submit names to the president of each of the four associations.
Frost offered his own name and Whittemore offered Quinn’s name too late, and neither used the proper channels to submit names, so no one was chosen from Somerset County, he said.
Citing a funding shortfall that would lead to mass layoffs and threaten corrections officers’ safety, the Board of Corrections in August voted to send lawmakers a budget that would fund the state’s jails fully for the rest of the year.
The problem is there is not enough money to fund the jails fully. It will be the new commission’s job to find that money.
Roy said no deadlines were missed and Somerset County, which has the greatest jail debt and some of poorest communities in Maine, was left out — plain and simple.
“We have nothing to say about this,” he said. “Shame on the Legislature.”
Somerset County filed a civil suit against the state Board of Corrections in May for payment of more than $280,000 the county says it is owed for operations at the Somerset County Jail for the third quarter of the 2012-13 fiscal year.
The petition for review by the Somerset County Superior Court seeks to reverse a unanimous vote by the board in April to withhold the county’s third-quarter payment owed under the state’s consolidated jail system.
The result of the withheld payment, according to Lee Bragg, who is representing Somerset County in the case, is that county residents paid the bills to run the jail in January, February and March without the promised reimbursement from the state.
Board of Corrections members said the payment was withheld because Somerset County kept the revenue from the boarding of federal inmates as part of its own jail budget and debt service on jail construction. The board contends that the money instead should have been sent to it to help defray the costs of the statewide jail system.
Bragg said there is no basis in law for withholding the money. He said the money was agreed upon in the 2013 jail budget, which was approved by the Board of Corrections.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367