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Jail Dispute Out of Hand

The flap over locating a county jail in downtown Santee seems to have gotten out of hand because public officials who should have been working together to solve a problem weren’t. It’s a story of how mistrust and lack of communication conspired to create ill feelings and an unseemly power struggle among different levels of government.

This is one of those controversies in which none of the participants--Supervisor George Bailey, the county staff, the Santee City Council and Assemblyman Larry Stirling--seem to be working from the same set of facts.

It all began when the county, reeling under a jail overcrowding crisis that finds its detention facilities overcrowded by about 75%, proposed putting a temporary jail on county property near downtown Santee.

The facility originally envisioned would have been, in the words of Santee officials, a “concentration camp” style, temporary jail with prefabricated buildings, barbed wire fence and possibly gun towers. Without a doubt, it would have been an eyesore and a detriment to Santee’s burgeoning redevelopment effort.

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But once it became clear that money from the successful June 3 statewide Proposition 52 bond issue would become available, the county decided it might be able to build a more attractive, permanent facility. County officials, including the office of East County Supervisor Bailey, say not only was the idea of building the type of facility Santee finds so offensive dropped, but the search for a site was broadened.

Santee officials contend the county was saying one thing while doing another. Their case is buttressed by the fact that Bailey’s office admits it didn’t realize until late in the game that the environmental impact study the supervisors had ordered was being done only at the Santee site and only for the camp-type facility.

In any case, at the behest of the Santee City Council, Assemblyman Stirling (R-San Diego) jumped into the act and amended legislation that allocates the Proposition 52 money so that Santee and all other San Diego County cities would be able to veto having it spent inside their boundaries. Stirling did this without first talking with Bailey to get his views of where the situation stood.

Stirling’s amendment is a very bad idea. It--along with language that also would let Los Angeles and Anaheim keep new jails out--has led to a threatened veto of the legislation by Gov. George Deukmejian. And it’s an example of the Legislature getting involved in local decision-making where it doesn’t belong.

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Locating jails will always be difficult. Few neighborhoods want them. But San Diego County is under a court order to avoid overcrowding at its Downtown Jail, and a serious problem exists.

Santee officials would have done better to argue in favor of an acceptable jail-government facility rather than to panic and involve Stirling in a purely local matter. Stirling’s action was inappropriate and only serves to make the Board of Supervisors’ job more difficult without offering anything constructive. For his part, Bailey certainly should have known what it was the board voted 5-0 to study.

It seems as if some basic communication could--and still might--go a long way toward resolving what’s become a very testy situation.


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