Attorney general won’t act on anonymous Bannock County Jail bond complaint

Pocatello

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Inmates play cards at the Bannock County Jail last month. The Idaho Attorney General’s Office has said it will take no further action on an anonymous complaint that questioned the legality of a proposed bond to expand the Bannock County Jail and provide crisis care services. Voters will decide the fate of the $16 million bond on Tuesday. | Doug Lindley, Idaho State Journal

POCATELLO — With a vote on the Bannock County Jail expansion bond a few days away, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office has said it will take no further action on a complaint filed last month.

In response to the anonymous complaint that questioned the legality of the jail expansion bond, Paul Panther, Deputy Attorney General and Chief of the Criminal Law Division, sent a letter to Bannock County Prosecutor Steve Herzog that says the anonymous letter does not meet the required threshold for the Attorney General to investigate. He said it does not claim that a County Commissioner committed a criminal offense in authorizing the bond and the language within it.

“Although (the) allegation is against elected county officers acting in their official capacity, (it) does not allege a violation of state criminal law,” Panther wrote. “As such, our Office has no jurisdiction to investigate this matter.”

Bannock County voters will decide on Tuesday if the $16 million bond — $14 million for a jail expansion and $2 million for a crisis care center and behavioral treatment center — will become a reality.

While the Idaho Attorney General is the incorrect authority to handle the anonymous complaint, that doesn’t necessarily mean the bond itself or the language within some parts of the bond are in accordance with Idaho state law.

One method to answer questions surrounding the legality of the bond is to file a permanent injunction complaint with an Idaho district judge. A permanent injunction complaint asks the judge to declare the bond invalid. During that process, an attorney can file a motion for a preliminary injunction that asks a judge to temporarily stop the respective process immediately, which in this case would be the issuance of bonds, considering the complaint occurs after the election.

“The permanent injunction complaint could say here’s what is about to happen, or even here’s what did happen and here is why that action is inconsistent with the laws of the state of Idaho and therefore should be considered null and void,” said James Ruchti, an attorney based in Pocatello. “The complaint could then ask the court to issue a preliminary injunction staying any effort to move forward.”

In a written statement sent to the Journal on Thursday, Bannock County Commission Chairman, Ken Bullock said the county needs to “give this type of anonymous letter the weight it is due.”

Bullock wrote, “As a county, we have completed our due diligence and worked with legal bond counsel to ensure that we are proposing an appropriate solution that meets legal requirements.

“Moving forward with this bond is the right thing to do for our community right now. We are in a position to move forward with a design based on community input to best meet our needs and remain in control of the process. Otherwise, we may be ordered by a federal judge to expand the jail at the expense of the behavioral health component. This mandate would likely be exponentially more expensive to tax payers than the community-driven continuum of care we are proposing today.”

The bond would increase property taxes for Bannock County residents by $27.32 per $100,000 of assessed home value.

The anonymous letter questioned the language describing the bond that voters will see on their election day ballots and a subsequent ordinance approved by the Bannock County Commission that states the bond is for “the acquisition, construction and equipping of an addition and related remodeling and improvements to the existing Bannock County jail facilities, (and) the acquisition, construction and equipping of a facility for the provision of crisis care, stabilization and alternatives to incarceration, including behavioral, substance abuse, and mental health services, and to pay expenses related thereto and costs of issuance of the bonds.”

Claiming that the Bannock County Commission — the government entity that put the bond on the election ballot — violated state law, the letter indicates that although Idaho statute allows for the issuance of bonds for the construction or expansion of a county jail, it does not specify if the county can legally issue bonds for the construction of a crisis care center or a behavioral treatment center.

The Idaho statute regulating bonds states: “When the interests of the county require it and the board of commissioners of the county deem it for the public good to bond the county to fund or refund the outstanding obligations or indebtedness of the county or bond the county for the purpose of acquiring funds for purchasing a site and erecting a courthouse and jail, a public auditorium or a jail thereon, or for the construction or repair of roads or bridges… the board of commissioners may issue bonds of the county.”

When asked about the anonymous letter and the legality of the Bannock County bond proposal’s language last month, Bannock County Commission Chairman Ken Bullock first referred questions to Hawley Troxell, a Boise-based law firm that provided legal counsel to the county regarding the bond for no charge.

An attorney with that firm has previously said in a written statement that perhaps some the language in the bond could have been changed.

Later, during an interview with the Journal last month, Bullock provided a written statement in response to the anonymous letter.

“We have used extreme caution to not use any language in the ordinance, the ballot, or any conversations to mislead any voter in Bannock County,” Bullock’s statement read. “We are confident we have used due diligence in the process.”

Also in his written response, Bullock defended the legality of the bond, noting that the language states the county will seek a facility for crisis care, not specifically a crisis care center.

“It should be noted that bond language states the words ‘crisis care’ and not ‘Crisis Center,’” according to the statement. “There are people who are welcome into a Behavioral Treatment Center who may be in crisis who would receive outpatient care or may be referred to a medical facility as determined by staff… By securing a building with the use of the bond for alternative incarceration under the direction of the county, including the 6th District Judicial system, it would strengthen our position with the State for future funding, as well.”

It’s unclear what would happen if someone filed an injunction between now and election day, but as it stands now, the $16 million bond requires support from a two-thirds super majority of voters to be approved.

This article was originally published by the Idaho State Journal. It is used here with permission.

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