One of the biggest grass-roots triumphs in Dallas County last year was the successful push by prisoner advocates and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins to preserve the right of Dallas County jail inmates to meet visitors in person rather than over a video camera. A new contract for jail visitation services between the county and Securus Technologies would have eventually ended in-person visits ended up getting fixed and in-person jail visits were preserved. It was a win for the good guys.
New rules adopted by the Dallas County Commissioners Court Tuesday make anything similarly positive happening in the near future unlikely.
Josh Gravens, a criminal justice reform advocate who helped organize against the Securus Contract, says that stopping it wouldn't have happened under the Commissioners' Court's new system, which cuts public meetings in half and, most important, restructures county procedure so that new items will be briefed and voted on the same day. As things stood until Tuesday, something like the Securus contract would be presented to the commissioners one week, and voted on the next.
"This initiative is just really a way to cut out Dallas County residents," Gravens says.
Jenkins was the only member of the court to fight the new rules, calling the cut meetings and compressed voting time frame a "giant step backwards." The four county commissioners all supported the changes. Mike Cantrell, the lone Republican on the court, said the court, staff and the public will now have more time to research agendas before meetings. He stressed the alternative means available for residents who want to contact the court.
“They have time to contact us by mail, by email, by phone, in person. I’m hard pressed to understand where the public is being cut out and they’re not having enough time to respond,” he said.
One shot isn't enough to give the public adequate representation at the court, Gravens says.
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"What we found in organizing [to preserve in-person visits] was that some people could attend or could take work off for one session but couldn't do it for both," Gravens says. "I think it's really going to be difficult for someone, particularly somebody that works, to take off on the day of a vote. if it doesn't line up with your schedule, then you don't get to have any input."
Having briefings and votes on the same day means that commissioner's have already made their decisions, too, heading into a meeting, Gravens says. "This is [Dallas County] staff's saying we know better than the public and our time is more valuable than the public."
The move to decreased transparency, Gravens says, comes as North Texans are finally beginning to focus on the machinations of local government.
"[The commissioner's court] is used to being a government body that nobody knows anything about. More and more people are becoming aware of the county's function. As awareness of local control goes up, more and more people are realizing that, while they can't necessarily push the state to adopt certain policies, they can begin to have policies adopted at the county and city level. To have our government essentially back away from the people — to have government go to a part time schedule for the sake of efficiency — we have a Legislature that works on that method, and we never can catch up," Gravens says.