Bethlehem Press

Friday, July 20, 2018
7892 - “The cloak is off,” Nazareth are resident Ryan Woodmansee told NorCo Council. 7892 - “The cloak is off,” Nazareth are resident Ryan Woodmansee told NorCo Council.
7700 - Kelly Schreier, holding her infant, accused the county of lacking transparency. 7700 - Kelly Schreier, holding her infant, accused the county of lacking transparency.

NorCo-Brown says no jail at Gracedale

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

Over the past three county election cycles, Gracedale has been a dominant issue. An effort to sell the public nursing home sparked a rare public referendum in 2011 in which voters overwhelmingly voted the keep it. Since that time, county candidates have universally made their own support clear. Now a possible jail at Gracedale has galvanized Nazareth area residents. They have packed into both County Council meetings on October 5 and 22 to oppose any new jail at Gracedale. They have circulated an online petition, gathering over 1,000 signatures. They have formed a Facebook page called “No Jail at Gracedale.” And they held a community gathering at Tuskes Park, which was attended both Executive and County Council candidates.

John Brown, who is running for re-election against challenger Lamont McClure, denies any intention of building a jail there. On Facebook, he recently accused McClure of using “FEAR FACTOR to incite fear in our seniors, children and families by spreading rumors @ a new jail at Gracedale! Absurd!!” But that follows a year in which Brown refused to reveal his plans.

A possible jail at Gracedale was first discussed at a Council meeting on September 14, 2016. At that time, Corrections Director Dan Keen laid out numerous problems at the Civil War war jail, calling it a “beast.” Brown, who was running for state auditor general at the time, was absent from that meeting. Keen told Council that he had already visited over 100 correctional facilities to get ideas, and that Brown had Keen told Council that he had already visited over 100 locations, and that Brown had several locations in mind. He said he wanted a new jail, with 40-60 acres, on a greenfield. He rejected a rehab on the current site, saying it would be too costly. He also said he wanted to start building in 2018 and be done by 2020.

At that time, Council President John Cusick told Administrator Cathy Allen to get a good zoning lawyer for any legal fights concerning the zoning for a jail at Gracedale. Ken Kraft, who is also a union agent, said the trades unions could have it built in a year. Allen assured Council, “[W]e’re going to have hurdles, but some of the people we need to be in our corner will be in our corner.”

In June, Brown notified Council that he intended to execute a $78,000 no-bid contract with DLR, one of the nation’s leading jail architectural firms, to study his options. He called competitive bidding “a waste of time and energy.” He later admitted that he could have had an independent study done by the National Institute of Corrections at no cost to taxpayers.

In June, Brown admitted that he had already visited a dozen different locations throughout the county,and that his intention was to build on a greenfield. He ruled out a jail at the current site in Easton, saying it would be too costly.

Then in July, during a meeting of the prison advisory board, Chair Dan Christenson called Gracedale “a great location” and pledged his board’s assistance.

When Brown released his budget in early October, he was specifically asked about a jail at Gracedale. Brown noted there are zoning issues, but refused to rule it out. He also refused to rule it out when a dozen Nazareth residents complained about a possible jail at Gracedale during Council’s Oct. 5 meeting.

One of them, Ryan Woodmansee, was frustrated that neither Council nor the Executive had answers. “It seems like we’re pulling teeth here to get answers from Council,” he said. And when Mat Benol told these residents that a possible jail at Gracedale was just “political fodder,” Woodmansee responded that they’ve all lacked transparency.

“The cloak is off,” he said.

A week after that meeting, Brown finally rued out a jail at Gracedale. During a meeting with about 1000 Nazareth area residents on October 15, he initially refused to pledge there would be no jail at Gracedale. But he relented as the meeting went on and pledged he would oppose a jail at Gracedale or at any county-owned park.

On Oct. 18, Brown released a one-page graphic prepared by DLR, and seemed to say he now favored building a new jail in place at Easton. But on the day he released this information, the state house adopted the Administrative Code (HB 118) for next year. That and the Fiscal Code are dark holes where unpopular legislation is hidden.

This legislation allows an “alternative bidding process” to be used to either rehab an old jail or build a new one in third class counties with a population between 280,000 and 298,000 as of the 2010 census. That means it can only apply to Northampton or Erie County.

This legislation was reported out of committee and voted on the same day.

“It just seems that comes at a pretty convenient time for something like this,” said Nazareth area resident James Cunningham when he and several other opponents of a jail at Gracedale spoke to County Council at their Oct. 19 meeting.

Brown was absent. He skipped county Council that night to participate in Bangor’s Halloween parade.