Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
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Engage the questions


When res­i­dents from the North Toledo neigh­bor­hood where Lu­cas County com­mis­sion­ers plan to build a new $180 mil­lion jail showed up for a pub­lic in­for­ma­tion meet­ing about the pro­posal a few nights ago, they were greeted with smil­ing county of­fi­cials ea­ger to chat up the pro­posed proj­ect. But many who live in the neigh­bor­hood felt they did not get straight an­swers.

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The com­mis­sion­ers have un­veiled a plan to build a $180 mil­lion re­place­ment for the county’s di­lap­i­dated down­town jail, on a 25-acre par­cel along North Detroit Avenue. Res­i­dents in about 700 homes from three nearby res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods were in­vited to look over ten­ta­tive plans and talk with of­fi­cials about the proj­ect.

Some res­i­dents say they want to know why the new jail can’t be near the site of the cur­rent down­town jail. Others want to know how the proj­ect will af­fect their prop­erty val­ues. Still oth­ers ask if they will be safe. Some want to see de­tails about how the jail will look and how it will change the na­ture of their neigh­bor­hood. These are rea­son­able ques­tions.

The com­mis­sion­ers need to en­gage with those ques­tion­ers and their ques­tions. And they have not done so yet.

Last week’s event was care­fully cho­reo­graphed by the com­mis­sion­ers who con­cede that an or­ga­nized com­mu­nity op­po­si­tion from neigh­bors in South Toledo last year sunk plans to build the jail along An­gola Road.

Neigh­bors who walked into the in­for­ma­tion ses­sion were met by a room full of ea­sels dis­play­ing maps and graphs and pro­spec­tive de­sign draw­ings, sur­rounded by prac­ticed county em­ploy­ees — from the com­mis­sion­ers them­selves and Sher­iff John Tharp, to cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers and sher­iff’s dep­u­ties — all ea­ger to en­gage con­cerned res­i­dents in con­ver­sa­tion.

The ar­range­ment was a great way to defuse what might have been an an­gry mob in a more tra­di­tional set­ting. The prob­lem was that while the pub­lic did not jeer en masse at pub­lic of­fi­cials speak­ing one-by-one be­fore a seated au­di­ence, they also did not get to hear, or be heard, as a group.

“It was di­vide and con­quer,” one res­i­dent said. “It was a snow job.”

The at­tend­ees felt man­aged and ma­nip­u­lated.

The com­mis­sion­ers have said they do not want to re­peat the mis­takes that doomed the South Toledo site. They want to hear from res­i­dents; they are ea­ger to lis­ten and learn.

If they mean that, the com­mis­sion­ers are go­ing to have to do more.

Sure, some neigh­bors will re­main op­posed to the plan no mat­ter how well county of­fi­cials ex­plain the case for build­ing a new jail or for choos­ing the site they chose. Some will con­tinue to fight the jail no mat­ter how much se­cu­rity is prom­ised and how many as­sur­ances au­thor­i­ties can of­fer about their prop­erty val­ues.

But last week’s event was a slickly stage-man­aged pub­lic re­la­tions stunt, not a neigh­bor­hood meet­ing. That meet­ing still needs to hap­pen. And that means hard ques­tions and anx­ious cit­i­zens must be heard, and an­swered.

The com­mis­sion­ers need to plan a few more in­for­ma­tional meet­ings, meet North Toledo res­i­dents on their own turf, and con­sult with them about the meet­ing for­mat they pre­fer.

County of­fi­cials who need to get a new jail built can­not sim­ply go through the mo­tions with fu­ture neigh­bors of the jail. If they have truly learned the les­sons of pre­vi­ous failed at­tempts, they will lis­ten to those neigh­bors.

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