Earlier this month, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County announced plans to join the Middle River Regional Jail Authority (MRRJA), thereby allowing them to avoid carrying on with their unpopular plan to build $63 million new jail. When that new jail plan was set in motion in December, the city and county had just begun a new and suddenly promising round of negotiations to join the MRRJA. But during the long and tense debate at the December council meeting when the $63 million plan was endorsed (to the great displeasure of many in the crowded council chamber), these renewed MRRJA negotiations weren’t mentioned at all.
Councilman Richard Baugh represented the city at those MRRJA negotiations that led to a deal soon after that December vote. Below, he explains at length his perspective on how it all turned out. Keeping those negotiations hush-hush, he says, were important to their ultimate success, as was the vote to proceed with the $63 million plan:
We had approached Middle River [Regional Jail Authority] about working out something long-term before gearing up for the jail funding process. The decision to proceed with looking at the new construction option was in part driven by the distance between the parties over Middle River. The buy-in numbers coming out of Middle River seemed excessive to us, as well as the indications being that Middle River was not willing to bring us in as full partners. Eventually, driven mostly by the December 31 deadline issue, our attentions pretty much shifted to that process. At a City-County Liaison Committee meeting, I believe in late November, it was reported that Middle River wanted to talk. The indication was that they wanted to renew discussions, but that was really all we knew going into the meeting. I was the City representative at that meeting, and was there on our side along with Joe Paxton, the Rockingham County Administrator.
This meeting took place the morning of December 8, which is to say the day before the City would have to vote on whether or not to continue the jail funding process (and two days before the County vote). Speaking personally, I came out of that meeting surprised. I went in with scant and low expectations and not knowing anything beyond that the Middle River folks wanted to talk. In the meeting with Middle River, it quickly seemed to me that they very much wanted to work out something with us. We did not walk out of that meeting with any agreement, beyond that we would continue to exchange information and communicate. I discussed this with Joe Paxton, and we seemed to be assessing the situation the same way.
We did not have an agreement. But we had gone in a short period of time from being miles apart to very close. Close enough that in my assessment the pendulum had swung. I now thought it likely that we would eventually work out something. Maybe soon. Maybe after months of continued negotiating. Maybe even not at all, if either side was not willing to compromise further.
Of course we still had a vote the next evening. I have actually had people disagree with me on this point, but it is impossible for me to imagine that the key factor driving the change in the Middle River dynamic was not that we were going forward with our jail funding application. In fact, I cannot think of what a second factor explaining their significant change in their position would be. Moreover, while I have heard arguments that disclosing this publicly during the December 9 Council meeting, or even voting to pull/postpone the application at that time “wouldn’t have hurt,” my counter is that this would have been the rosy scenario, as it is impossible to see how it would have helped.
More likely it would have prolonged negotiations if not killed them outright, as well as stiffened Middle River’s resolve as to its numbers (thereby costing our citizens more if there was eventually an agreement). While in some respects this information made a difficult evening on December 9 more difficult, it made it even clearer how I needed to vote. Rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, the jail funding application needed to go forward, especially in light of the developments with Middle River the day before, and since even if those negotiations fell through, a decision to award jail construction funding would not materialize until the spring of 2016 at the earliest.
That left plenty of time to consider and work on whatever other options presented themselves, and to delay or end the jail funding process at whatever point down the road it seemed appropriate. The rest is fairly mundane. Communication with Middle River proceeded quickly rather than slowly. The relatively modest gap between the parties’ positions closed. This led to the memorandum of understanding that has since been made public and the development of a formal agreement that the jurisdictions expect to consider sometime in the not too distant future.