Religious leaders sue to void county contract with ICE
Suit alleges freeholders violated state Open Public Meetings Act
by Al Sullivan
Reporter staff writer
Sep 09, 2018 | 3858 views | 0 0 comments | 136 136 recommendations | email to a friend | print
LAWSUIT
FREEHOLDERS UNDER FIRE – Religious leaders filed suit against the Hudson County Board of Freeholders, saying a vote taken on July 12 to renew the county jail contract with ICE may have been illegal.
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A group of Hudson County religious leaders, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, filed suit on Aug. 27 to force the Hudson County Board of Freeholders to void a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house immigrant detainees in the county jail. The ICE/Freeholders contract provides the county with $10 million over 10 years to house the prisoners, who are awaiting hearings for immigration-related matters that are not necessarily criminal. The jail also holds about 400 prisoners charged with crimes.

The suit alleges the freeholders violated the state Open Public Meetings Act when the board adopted the new contract on July 12, after saying, contradictorily, at a freeholder caucus two days earlier that it would not be on the regular meeting agenda. The suit claims the freeholders led the public to believe the contract would not be decided until a later meeting.

Jim Kennelly, spokesperson for County Executive Tom DeGise, said the county will not comment on the suit. A hearing on the suit had not been scheduled as of press time last Friday morning.

Freeholders Bill O’Dea and Joel Torres voted against the contract, partly due to a lack of information at the time of the vote, and the failure of the administration to allow the vote to be delayed for 30 days. The freeholders have acknowledged that they did not have a copy of the contract when they voted, going on administration assurances it was identical to an existing agreement.

There also appears to be some discrepancy over the details. The county claims the agreement is a 10-year, $10 million contract. But immigration advocates claim the contract is for an indefinite period. Also, according to their calculations, multiplying $120 per detainee per day for 800 detainees for a whole year means the contract could actually bring the county as much as $35 million annually.

There is also no cap on the number of potential detainees. Currently the 2,000-capacity jail has about 400 inmates and 800 detainees, but is staffed to handle full capacity. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop has said the county is using the ICE contract to justify maintaining the number of employees at the jail. State-wide bail reform and other changes have resulted in a serious reduction in criminal inmates.

“It is time for the county to ‘right size’ the facility,” Fulop said, meaning that the county should reduce staff. He also said other options such as ankle bracelets should be employed for detainees rather than jail cells.

“This lawsuit is simple,” said Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla. “We live in a democracy, and the public has a right to be heard. In this case, the public was deprived.”

Activists pushing to have the county cancel its contract with ICE criticized the July 12 vote because they had no time to state their case opposing the renewal, and complained that the meeting took place during a summer day, when meetings are generally not well attended by the public.

Activists pressured the freeholder board to use a clause in the agreement that would allow the county to cancel the contract within 60 days. But the freeholders voted in August to wait until they get a report from a newly-formed committee looking into conditions at the jail. That report, however, is not expected until Sept. 27, well after the 60-day opt out period expires.

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“When public bodies make decisions affecting our lives and our communities, the Sunshine Law safeguards the public’s right to witness that process. The Board of Chosen Freeholders violated that law.” – ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Tess Borden

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Suit aims to cancel July vote

The religious leader’s lawsuit calls for the freeholders to rescind the July vote and hold an open public meeting.

Although activists have serious concerns about the contract, Tess Borden, staff attorney for the ACLU who filed the suit before Superior Court, said the suit is about how the vote was taken, not specifically about the contract.

“A process that intentionally misleads the public and shields government from public scrutiny is unlawful and undemocratic,” Borden said.

The seven religious leaders include Rev. Thomas Murphy, Rev. Gary Commins, Ashraf Eisa, Rev. William Henkel, Rev. Frances Teabout, Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas, and Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm, all of whom fill leadership roles at places of worship in Hudson County. They were part of a group of fifty-six signatories that published a statement condemning the board’s July 12 action to renew the ICE contract.

Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas, of Hoboken, said the freeholders deceived the public after announcing the board would not vote on the contract at that meeting.

“It is important to let people have an opportunity to have their feelings heard,” she said.

At the July 10 caucus meeting, the freeholders agreed unanimously (Freeholder Al Cifelli was absent) to postpone the vote for a month. The item was removed from the agenda.

However, after the July 12 meeting began, the board added the ICE contract back onto the agenda and voted to renew the contract.

Activist Anna Brown, who came to the meeting early, said a county employee told her the vote was postponed and so she left the meeting, after alerting other activists via listserv.net not to come.

“In a democracy, elected officials have a choice over how to cast their votes, but they do not have a choice about hearing the voice of the people,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “Right now, with a federal government that continually places our rights and dignity under assault, local government has a duty to demonstrate what accountable, responsive government looks like. The Hudson County freeholders abdicated that responsibility to the people when they held this deceptive vote.”

Freeholders make unannounced visit to Hudson County jail

Under increasing pressure to cancel the county contract with the federal government to house immigrant detainees at the Hudson County Correctional Facility and to make improvements in conditions at the facility, Freeholders Bill O’Dea and Joel Torres made an unannounced visit to the jail on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

“I gave Director Edwards about an hour’s notice that we would be coming, and that we wanted to eat lunch with the detainees in one of the pods,” O’Dea said.

O’Dea said there have been extensive conversations with Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise and his staff, looking for ways to use the funds from the multi-million dollar ICE contract to help benefit those detained by making improvements to the jail, the food menu, and expanding opportunities for visitation.

The freeholders Public Safety Committee arranged to make a formal visit to the jail on Aug. 10. Torres wasn’t able to attend, yet wanted to speak with some of the detainees.

“I had been given an extensive tour a number of months ago, but I wanted to go speak at length to some of the detainees,” Torres said.

The two freeholders, along with Correctional Facility Director Ronald Edwards and some of his staff, went to the same location as the Aug. 10 scheduled visit.

“We wanted to go back and make sure that issues raised last week had been addressed,” O’Dea said. “Some were, others were not.”

Torres helped interpret for several of the Spanish-speaking detainees.

“They spoke about issues with food and lack of recreation,” Torres said, “and one detainee who had not received the medical care he had requested was at our behest taken down to the medical unit while we were there. We were able to have extensive conversations with some of the detainees to get an idea of some of the problems they are having – lack of recreation time and recreation activities, especially outside activities, was one of the most frequently voiced complaints.”

According to the freeholders, Director Edwards made verbal commitments to them on two important issues related to visitation. The first is that a second day of the week, a weeknight, would be added in addition to Saturday, and second, that the 30 minute time limit per visit would be extended to one hour. Both of those changes were expected to begin right after Labor Day weekend.

As for the lunch, the menu was nothing special – a hot dog, two pieces of bread, a piece of cheese, coleslaw, sliced potatoes and oatmeal.

“It was edible,” O’Dea said, “though a bit on the cold side.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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