New jail — While an argument can be made that the construction of a new jail for Tuolumne County is way overdue, the good news is it’s happening now. For years, the inadequacy of the existing jail on Yaney Avenue in a residential area in downtown Sonora has been starkly apparent.
Offices in what were once closets, Inmates mixing too closely with each other and their jailers. A roof-top exercise that offers nothing close to exercise. And now, this week’s grand jury report points out more alarming problems, including sewerage captured in tarps and funneled into garbage cans. Some effluent may back up and leak into hallways near the kitchen. That is just disgusting, inhumane and egregious. Imagine the smell.
Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele is right to say the county has escaped the iron fist of the federal courts for a long time.
The current jail is 56 years old. It’s been added onto twice. What was once the yard is now the intake building. City height restrictions prevent the construction of more floors. Every square inch of the landlocked property has been used — and then some.
Some 20 years ago, the grand jury began noting the deficiencies and has noted them in increasing numbers every year since.
This week, the Board of Supervisors approved a schedule for construction of a $40 million facility on the same site where the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility is located. We’ve already beat the drum about whether that facility should have been built, but it’s there so the county has to deal with it. The jail is the facility that has been needed longer and more vehemently.
If all goes as planned, construction on the jail will begin the week after Thanksgiving with completion expected sometime in mid-2019. The cost to operate will be higher — $8.3 million, compared with $7.1 million, mostly due to required additional medical care and staff salaries.
There are those who say people who commit crimes don’t deserve to live in such a place. Mele promises this is bare bones, not the Taj Mahal. And anyone who has ever been inside a locked facility knows it’s anything but a pleasurable experience.
Also, the jail population includes many people who have not been convicted of crimes, most especially staff, volunteers and those charged but not convicted.
The Board of Supervisors deserves praise in finally going ahead with this construction — much of which is being paid for by state funds. It’s not the most popular vote they’ve taken, but a courageous and necessary one.
Advisory committee — The committee that will advise the Sonora Union High School Board about whether to sell the Sonora Dome and/or Wildcat Ranch got off to a shaky start this week. The agenda for the first meeting was not posted publicly, which is the most basic of the rules outlined by the California open meeting law known as the Brown Act, named for sponsor Ralph M. Brown, a Modesto assemblyman, speaker and California Appeals Court judge.
This act was passed in 1953. Workshops are held frequently here for public officials to educate them on what it says and what their responsibilities are as public officials, or more accurately public servants. Too often, people elected to office forget that they serve at the will of the people and the people they hire, such as a superintendent or administrator do, too. You pay their salaries and you deserve to know when they meet, what they talk about and what they decide.
At the time the Brown Act was passed, various governments were meeting in gatherings they called workshops or study sessions, essentially hashing out their decisions behind closed doors.
Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Pay Chabot apparently was responsible for publicizing the agenda for the dome, ranch committee meeting this week. He says he couldn’t put the agenda on the district’s website because his assistant was out and the IT staff couldn’t do it. What he should have done was cancel the meeting.
Instead, the group met and were confronted by Carol Doud, a resident who apparently has more respect for the Brown Act than some of our local officials.
The group acquiesced and just talked. No action was taken. Make no mistake, this was an illegal meeting. Chabot told reporter Giuseppe Ricapito it was not an official meeting, but an “information meeting for the community.” The agenda Chabot arrived with, though, said regular meeting and listed, among other things, that the committee would elect leaders. By appearance, he had every intention of going ahead and holding an official meeting.
Chabot told Ricapito: “It was an open exchange of information. I think it worked very well. I learned a lot, and I think everyone else did, too.”
Hopefully, one of the things they learned is to do the public’s business in public.