Prison contract delays assembly

Controversy over last-minute agenda change forces 2nd meeting tonight

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

A last-minute request to approve a contract with Cornell Companies caught some members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly off guard at Tuesday night's assembly meeting.

A reluctance to approve the contract resulted in the meeting being recessed until 7 p.m. tonight.

Cornell is the lead on a team of companies selected to work with the borough in the planning, promotion and potentially the design, construction and operation of the state's first privately operated 800- to 1,000-bed, medium-security correctional facility.

Completed late Tuesday afternoon, the 13-page contract was reviewed page by page with the assembly by borough attorney Colette Thompson shortly before the assembly convened Tuesday evening. However, when that item was reached on the agenda, members of the public, as well as assembly members, expressed concern about the last-minute introduction.

"I called the borough at 11 (a.m.) and was told it was not on the agenda," testified James Price, of Nikiski, who referred to the late introduction as "sneaky."

"The public has to have input," Price said, encouraging the assembly to table the subject until the "people decide what they want."

Borough Mayor Dale Bagley asked Price if he had attended the last assembly meeting. When Price responded that he had, Bagley told the Nikiski resident he "shouldn't have been surprised" because it had been brought up at that meeting.

Assembly member Ron Long, of Seward, said he was "likewise surprised to get 13 pages that late in the day," but called attention to the fact that the contract was only for the planning and promotion of the prison project, "nothing more."

Pete Sprague, who represents Soldotna on the assembly, made a motion to postpone action on the resolution and contract until the April 17 meeting.

"We sat down at 6:15, eating dinner, and trying to read the contract," he said. "I, for one, do not think that's enough time. I want to sit down and read the document. I would like to have more than 45 minutes."

Bill Popp, of Kenai, characterized Sprague's motion as a "disservice to the borough," adding that to delay action would put the borough "in a position of potentially losing this contract."

Milli Martin, of Homer, said she wasn't comfortable voting on the issue Tuesday evening.

"Time and time again we keep promising people they'll be able to comment," Martin said. "I would like more time with this. I don't want to lose the contract, but I would feel more comfortable with more time to look at it."

Grace Merkes, of Sterling, who has publicly stated her support of a public, rather than privately operated facility, said the assembly needs to "listen to the public."

"Have we ever had a good background check of Cornell?" she asked.

When Jeff Sinz, borough finance director, outlined the information that had been obtained on Cornell prior to Cornell's team being selected to work with the borough, he said, "Corrections, by nature, is sort of a troublesome industry."

Noting his comment, Merkes responded, "Maybe it's not the kind of industry we're interested in."

Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, suggested a two-day delay to give assembly members time to review the document.

"I'm concerned about liability and the public perception," Fischer said.

Passing the gavel, Assembly President Tim Navarre, of Kenai, said he found it difficult to believe that "some people feel we've left the public out."

"I apologize that we didn't have more time," Navarre said. "But I don't think we've been derelict in our responsibilities. We knew this was coming."

Popp finally came up with the winning solution to Tuesday's dilemma. His motion to recess until 7 p.m. today received approval from everyone present, with the exception of Navarre and Sprague.

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