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.
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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