by BRAD ROLLINS
Hays County will appeal Texas Commission on Jail Standard’s order last week to close its jail kitchen by Nov. 20, saying the facility is safe and the jail commission’s staff kept it in the dark about the extent of the county’s efforts to correct problems.
Besides, the commission is not scheduled to meet again until February and a range of a major emergency repairs, including replacing a leaky roof and HVAC system blamed for rust and mold in the building, will be completed by then.
“I think there is a basis for an appeal; I don’t want to do it just to buy time. As it happens though, we would be at a point where the problems would be fixed by the time the commission does hear an appeal,” said Mark Kennedy, the Hays County District Attorney’s civil division chief. “…In my opinion, the remedial order is not remedial, it is punitive. It’s creating an emergency where we have to then deviate from our regular purchasing procedure, go out and grab the first thing we can find.”
On a motion from Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley, the court voted 5-0 to instruct Kennedy to draft an appeal for consideration at next week’s commissioners court session. They also voted to ask city of San Marcos health inspectors to examine the facility and issue a report.
To a person, commissioners court members said they were surprised by the jail commission’s decision last week to close the kitchen given the county’s authorization in October for $1.4 million in repairs and hundreds of thousands more for consultants to study both long-term jail needs and a broader assessment of the county’s judicial system. In addition, Conley said commission members told him that they were not given information about the county’s efforts until immediately before their meeting.
“I think by the time the commission hears this in February, we’ll have made substantial progress. We’re not trying to avoid any of the repairs that need to be made but we do believe we have done everything we can and are working hard on it,” Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe said.
Said Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, “If there are genuine life and safety threats out there, we want those brought to our attention, but we don’t know of any. We want to make the point that this is dramatically different than cases you hear about around the country where people have become sick because of the food. … No one has become ill because of Hays County jail food.”
The unanimity on the court was in sharp contrast to a round of finger-pointing that started after the commissions vote last week. Immediately following the meeting, Sheriff Tommy Ratliff took to the news cameras to say he’d told the commissioners court so and that “we got their attention now.”
“I really felt like these things were going to be done back then … They were a little slow to get started and take these issues seriously. I don’t think they realized the seriousness of the situation. We felt like the ball was pretty much in their court,” Ratliff said. “…These aren’t problems that started when Tommy Ratliff became sheriff.”
Conley in turn rapped Ratliff hard for failing to keep the kitchen sanitary, referencing photos shown to the jail commission that seemed to show mold and mildew in the kitchen area. He said at the time, “We know the issues with the roof are directly linked to the overall issues that we’re having at the jail in many ways. It does not mean that under the proper maintenance program that we can’t have a sanitary kitchen on a day-to-day basis.”
On Tuesday, Ratliff, who has been criticized for skipping previous commissioners court sessions on the jail, initially appeared to ask for authorization to lease a mobile kitchen for $12,500 a month plus $3,500 installation cost.
When talk turned to the appeal, Ratliff returned to a seat near the back of the courtroom and listened, arms-crossed. Barton asked him toward of the end of the meeting if the court’s plan of action seemed reasonable to him; still sitting, Ratliff shook his head “yes.”
Ratliff, who has said on multiple occasions that a new jail could be built for $20 million, last week revised his estimate upward to $50 million to $60 million.
San Marcos Mercury Managing Editor Brad Rollins writes about Hays County for the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published.Email | Print