It took all day, but the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly finally chose a partner for one of the biggest projects ever to grab its attention.
After disappearing into executive session at 9:30 a.m. Friday, the assembly reconvened in general session at 7:15 p.m. to move forward with the planning, design and construction of Alaska's first private prison.
The executive session was called at the urging of borough attorney Colette Thompson, who referred to requirements in borough code for maintaining confidentiality of bids for professional services until such time as the bid is awarded.
The day's agenda included a one-hour morning presentation by Corrections Group North, a team including Cornell Companies and the Kenai Natives Association, followed by an hour for the assembly to ask questions. After a lunch break, the closed-door session reconvened with a one-hour presentation by Management and Training Corporation and a second hour for questions from assembly members. Confidential deliberations continued until 7 p.m.
Assembly member Jack Brown moved to select Cornell Companies, Inc., the lead company of the Corrections Group North team. A 7-to-2 vote put Cornell's name on the dotted line of the resolution permitting negotiation of a contract to assist borough administration with the planning, promotion and potentially the design, construction and operation of an 800- to 1,000-bed medium security correctional facility.
Assembly members Pete Sprague and Chris Moss of Homer favored runner-up Management and Training Corporation; however, a final vote on the resolution received unanimous approval.
"I believe Cornell came up with a well-defined legislative strategy," said Brown, of the need to win legislative approval for the project. "They did extensive research of the site of the correctional facility. (I was) extremely impressed with their local emphasis on employee development and recruitment."
Brown said he was also impressed with Cornell's local knowledge and the "Native component of their presentation."
Popp also praised Cornell's presentation, but said it was a tough decision.
"I felt both companies were equally matched in financial perspective and felt both bidders had a pretty good understanding of the project," Popp said. "Both companies are very qualified. In some ways Management and Training Corporation has a few things going for them in regards to out-of-state operations that edged out Cornell a slight bit."
But Popp said Cornell's legislative strategy, project promotion and understanding of the site location gave the firm the edge.
Paul Fischer supported the resolution but said he still had concerns.
"I'm concerned that Tuesday was really the first time we got involved, and Friday we're making a final decision," the Kasilof assembly member said. "I wish we'd had time to call up references and check them out. Also, I'm concerned about the borough incurring obligations as an operator of a prison. I still have concerns. While listening to testimony today, I thought, 'By golly, we are really (talking about) running a prison.''
Fischer said the fact that the prison project will proceed without "a vote of the people" also caused him concern.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said the next steps involve negotiating a contract for assembly approval and preparing legislation to gain approval for the peninsula project at the state level.
Previous actions passed by the Alaska Legislature opened the door for construction of a private prison at Ft. Greely near Delta Junction. However, a number of roadblocks, including two lawsuits, have brought that project to a near standstill. Margaret Pugh, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Corrections, said building the prison on the peninsula requires additional legislation to either redirect the already-approved project to this area or to authorize construction of a second facility to house Alaska's inmate population.
A shortage of in-state prison space is to blame for some 800 inmates currently housed in a Corrections Corporation of America facility in Arizona.
Bagley said the necessary legislation is already being drafted.
"I know (Representative) Mike Chenault has been working on it in Juneau," Bagley said. "And I know (the borough administration) has done up some proposed stuff. I suppose we'll share ours with Rep. Chenault and get something put together."
Assembly President Tim Navarre said consultant Richard Crane will continue to offer input during the upcoming contract development.
"I assume he will be still used as an advisory person to review the contracts," Navarre said of the former Corrections Corporation of America employee. "And also after we finish the initial negotiations to see if we left anything out, for suggestions he might have and before we sign contracts."
What Crane won't be used for is researching materials like those distributed to the assembly during public testimony at Tuesday's meeting. The materials included copies of newspaper articles reporting problems encountered with several leading private corrections companies, including Cornell and MTC.
"You just can't have everybody putting something in there and then have someone say 'research this, research that,'" Navarre said of a request from assembly member Milli Martin for follow-up on the documentation. "If it was something that needed to be researched, it will be researched. We'll do all the investigation and research necessary to make these decisions, but you can't react to someone just supplying information and you having to go verify everything that's supplied to you."
Navarre said Friday's executive session gave an opportunity for the assembly to ask pertinent questions of the contract-hopefuls.
"All I can tell you is the assembly asked questions both that the public had and the assembly members had throughout the process when we had the teams there," he said.
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