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Cuyahoga County Executive, council president exit jail planning committee, criticize some members

Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish announced ARPA spending plans in a video released by the county.
Castele, Nick
Cuyahoga County
Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish , seen here announcing ARPA spending plans in a video released by the county.

In a letter released Monday, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish and Cuyahoga County Council President Pernel Jones said they are leaving the committee created in 2019 to plan for a new county jail and courts building.

Budish and Jones also harshly criticized three of the members who voted against the county’s proposed site for a new jail at the committee’s last meeting.

Three weeks ago, the Justice Center Executive Steering Committee voted 6-5, with Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s representative abstaining, against building a jail at 2700 Transport Road. A recent report from environmental consultants found contaminated groundwater and the need for venting and monitoring of air quality at the site but that a jail could be built there if enough safeguards are put in place.

The letter was addressed to three of the “no” votes, County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, Court of Common Pleas Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan and Public Defender Cullen Sweeney.

“The upshot is that your actions will cost the county’s taxpayers millions more dollars in new planning costs, and constructions, and inflation costs,” wrote Budish and Jones.

The other three officials who voted “no” were from Cleveland Municipal Court, Cleveland Clerk of Courts and the Domestic Relations Court. They were not mentioned in the letter.

In a response to the letter sent Tuesday, O'Malley said the letter contained erroneous claims, including that his decision to hire outside counsel created a conflict of interest because he is the county's lawyer, and attempted to overshadow problems with the county's plan.

"Attempting to assign blame and acting without cooperation, is not effective and does not help aid with building a new jail that is best for the citizens of Cuyahoga County," O'Malley said.

In addition to criticizing O’Malley, Sheehan and Sweeney for their opposition to building at 2700 Transport Road, the letter called on Cleveland officials to make a decision on their future use of a new Justice Center.

In a statement released Tuesday, Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan said he would not "waste time responding to finger-pointing or assigning blame."

"I will say this: six members of a 12-person Steering Committee voted against the proposed property acquisition as a site for a new jail, and one member abstained from voting, after hearing the same analysis I heard," Sheehan said.  "The determination—the County can do better."

Currently the city’s police department headquarters, municipal court and clerk of court’s office are all at the Justice Center. Cleveland also pays the county to detain arrestees at the jail. But Law Director Mark Griffin has said the Bibb Administration is not prepared to commit to paying any upfront costs for a new court building or jail.

“The next County Executive and County Council can decide whether to use a Steering Committee and how to proceed,” the letter stated.

It’s already clear the new county executive will depart not just from purchasing the 2700 Transport Road site but also from some of the decisions already made by the steering committee.

In an interview Monday, Democratic candidate for County Executive Chris Ronayne said he wants to keep the courts and jail connected.

In November, 2020, the steering committee voted unanimously to build a new jail at a separate location near Downtown Cleveland and keep the courthouse in downtown.

“I think from the standpoint of efficiencies, transportation, making sure that our judges and lawyers also have access to our detainees,” Ronayne said. “To me it’s inefficient to separate the two.”

There are two jail buildings at the Justice Center in Downtown Cleveland – Jail 1 and Jail 2. Ronayne also said he thinks the newer of the two buildings, Jail 2, could still be used while Jail 1 is replaced.

“I want to make sure that I see the facilities as one levy judgement, but my instincts are the newer facility probably has useful life,” Ronayne said.

He proposed using other suburban jails, instead of building a new facility with around 1900 beds, to hold some people and focus more on reducing the jail population before moving ahead.

At the time of the November, 2020 vote, the cost of a new jail was estimated at around $400 million. The most recent estimate put the cost at around $750 million.

“I was disconcerted by the fact that the numbers rose two times in less than a year,” Ronayne said. “Building costs, interest rates, costs of construction doesn’t necessarily spike by double in that one year period.”

In a September letter, the Republican candidate for county executive, Lee Weingart, asked council to pause planning for a new jail. He proposed scrapping plans to build at 2700 Transport Road, instead keeping Jail 2, closing Jail 1 and using the old juvenile justice center facility near Downtown Cleveland to hold around 650 people.

In an interview Tuesday, Weingart said he would also reconvene the steering committee before moving ahead. He said he would find a new consultant to guide the process, replacing Jeffrey Appelbaum of Project Management Consultants.

Under his proposal, the capacity of the two facilities combined would be about 1,300. He said the current population level of around 1,650 can be dramatically reduced, pointing to an average stay of more than 200 days at a jail meant primarily for people waiting for trial.

"Our quote-unquote jail problem is actually a judge problem," Weingart said. "Our judges are not moving their dockets fast enough.”

Weingart estimates the average daily population at the county jail could be brought down to around 1,000 if judges focused on moving cases to trial quickly.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.