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County commissioners—Jail, voting machines discussed

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Plans for a new jail, the purchase of new voting machines and public access to commissioner meetings were among the topics raised by local citizens at last Tuesday’s Greene County Board of Commissioners “town hall” meeting in Yellow Springs. 

“How can we get involved in the jail [project]?” villager Don Hollister asked the commissioners, referring to proposals to build a new county jail to replace the current 1969-built structure in downtown Xenia, one of two county detention facilities. County officials have cited overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure as the main drivers of the project.

Tuesday’s meeting was one in a series of occasional evening public forums organized by the three-member commissioners board at different locations in Greene County. About 10 citizens attended the Yellow Springs event, held at Antioch University Midwest.

Commissioners Tom Koogler, Bob Glaser and Dick Gould attended, as did county administrator Brandon Huddleson.

New jail, drug rehab coalition

On the issue of a proposed new county jail, commissioners said during the meeting that they were close to turning over a recommendation to County Sheriff Gene Fischer. That recommendation is based on input from a consultant hired by the county last year to develop jail population projections and building options for the project.

“It’s the sheriff’s jail. We come up with the financing,” Koogler explained.

He stated that there would be a public hearing on the jail project at an unspecified date.

Commissioners and Sheriff Fischer are currently considering options for new and renovated structures whose projected costs range from $56 million to $71 million. Money for the project would come primarily from an increase in sales tax in the county.

Separate from the Tuesday forum, commissioners at their subsequent Thursday work session indicated their preference for one of the consultant’s options, a plan that would rebuild the downtown jail on land adjacent to the existing Adult Detention Center and renovate the ADC, a lower-security jail. That plan would increase the total number of beds to approximately 500 from the existing 382. Under the option favored by commissioners, half of the detention center would house a drug rehabilitation component that would be operated by a third party, according to Koogler at the work session.

How the county intends to address drug addiction and mental health issues under the new plan has been a concern for some county residents.

“I don’t think building a bigger jail is the answer,” villager Shonda Sneed, who attended the forum, said in a subsequent interview. “Why don’t we build places that help with addiction?”

The county recently hired a director for an inter-agency coalition that is addressing drug addiction in the county. The move represents the first “organized effort to solve drug and mental health issues affecting our jail and communities,” according to Koogler on Tuesday.

He called the county’s approach to the new jail a “transformation incarceration” designed to help those with addiction issues, “not just lock them up.”

Since 2002, the county has operated an  in-jail drug rehab program called Greene Leaf for men and women. Fifty-five beds are reserved for individuals in that program.

Commissioner Glaser stated that drugs were a major driver of the county’s jail population. And all commissioners cited crowding at the main, higher-security jail as a contributor to crime in the county. 

“We have no place to put them,” Koogler said in response to a citizen question about outstanding warrants in the county.

A group of local residents has been following the jail issue closely, according to villager Dorothee Bouquet after Tuesday’s meeting. 

“We are all concerned about this,” she said.

New voting machines

Another issue of interest was the county’s plans for purchasing new voting machines. Greene County will be receiving $1.7 million from the state for the purchase of new voting equipment as part of a statewide push to upgrade Ohio’s voting machines before the 2020 election.

State money will cover just a portion of the upfront and maintenance costs of the equipment, with the remainder of the money coming from the county budget.

Commissioners and several citizens criticized the Greene County Board of Elections for not including a paper ballot option in its narrowed list of voting equipment vendors from the state-approved vendor list. 

“We’re trying to get them to include the third vendor,” said Koogler, referring to Clear Ballot, a paper ballot company in Boston. 

Several area counties have returned to paper ballots or a hybrid approach, citing security concerns related to electronic voting. Election officials in Greene County have indicated a preference for an upgrade to the existing direct-recording electronic, or DRE, voting machines currently in use in the county.

The decision is ultimately up to the county board of elections, Koogler said.

This Monday, the county elections board met to make its final vendor selection. The elections board chose an upgraded version of the Dominion Voting Systems machines, the touchscreen system already in place. Voters who want to vote by paper ballot may still do so, but fewer than 1 percent opt for paper, according to Elections Director Llyn McCoy this week. 

“Voters use and like touchscreens,” she said. Audits of the electronic voting records by county election officials have never found any problems or discrepancies with hand-counted ballots, she added.

The elections board’s choice still has to be reviewed and approved by the county prosecutor’s office and the county commissioners, according to McCoy.

Need for better public access

Another town hall topic was the accessibility and transparency of commissioners’ weekly meetings, which currently take place Thursdays at 1 p.m. at 35 Greene St. in Xenia. A work session, also open to the public, follows at the same location.

Although those meetings are open to the public, the time makes them difficult for working people to attend, according to several citizens.

“You meet when I’m working,” Sneed said. She suggested a shift to evening meetings. Koogler said commissioners had tried switching one meeting a month to evenings, but few citizens attended.

“Can we have a candid conversation about the transparency of meetings?” asked Bouquet, who has attended the weekly meetings regularly over the past two years as part of a Greene County citizens’ group.

Bouquet said the group had pushed for videorecording of the meetings, which is now in place. But the lag in online posting of those recordings means that citizens aren’t able to address topics when they appear on the agenda. The existing guideline limits citizen comments to items on the current agenda.

“Those guidelines can be bent,” county administrator Huddleson said.

Bouquet believes there is a clear need for greater citizen involvement in the commissioners’ decisions.

“The county commissioners are handling a lot of our taxpayers’ money, so we need to see what’s happening,” she said in a follow-up interview.

The Greene County Board of Commissioners oversees the county’s budget, which totals $57.8 million this year. That money funds everything from capital improvements to appropriations for a range of county offices to the salaries of the 422 county employees directly under the commissioners’ authority, according to a presentation by Huddleson.

About half the county budget comes from local sales tax, while another 15 percent derives from county property taxes. Only about $2 million, or 3.7 percent, of the county budget currently comes from the state.

A citizens’ group called Greene County Voices regularly attends or otherwise keeps tabs on commissioners’ weekly public meetings. That group has a Facebook page, Facebook.com/Greenecountyvoices. 


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