September 8, 2013

Jail system study group missing a key voice

Somerset County, which is suing the state Board of Corrections, was left off a legislative panel.

By DOUG HARLOW Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN - A legislative group studying the state's unified jail system includes county commissioners, county sheriffs, administrators and two legislators.

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 Maine 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."

(Continued on page 2)

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