Indiana ACLU waits for judge to decide on a subpoena to depose county council members; decision due on Monday

ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) – The Allen County Commissioners continue to hope that County Council will agree to fund the new jail before they meet once again for a status hearing with federal judge Damon R. Leichty on Sept. 29.

Thursday, Commissioner Nelson Peters asked for another public hearing to clear the way for approval of a .2% jail local income tax, or LIT, that would provide enough money to build the jail which now wobbles between the price tag of $250 million and $300 million.

In order to avoid a contempt of court ruling Leichty nearly threatened in the summer of 2022 for failing to make the jail safer and better staffed, Allen County, including the commissioners and the Allen County Sheriff, have had to follow a timeline outlined by Leichty.

The hearings started when Leichty sided with inmates in March 2022, agreeing that the jail was inhumane with conditions that included being overcrowded and understaffed leading to danger and lack of necessary sanitation. The Indiana ACLU and the inmates filed a federal lawsuit in January 2020.

The existing Allen County Jail downtown could be taken over by a federal master if numbers don’t go down.

Just prior to Leichty’s ruling, WANE 15 was granted a tour of the jail that revealed an aging structure needing attention or a new facility. The jail built in 1981 with a couple of additions sits at Clinton and Superior streets in downtown Fort Wayne. The nearly four acre-site is prime riverfront real estate which leads pundits to think neither the city nor the county wants the jail to remain at that location.

One of the last steps toward building a new jail has been the county’s funding arm, the Allen County Council, which failed to approve the local income tax option at its July 20 meeting in a 4-2 vote.

Councilman Paul Lagemann was absent. Votes against it included Josh Hale, whose district includes 2911 Meyer Road where the new jail is to be built, Kyle Kerley, Bob Armstrong and Ken Fries, a former sheriff who told WANE 15 after the meeting that he wanted to see different options to build the jail, but was still for a new criminal justice complex.

By balking at voting for the jail lit, County Council has one more meeting on Sept. 21 to vote for it and that’s why Peters came in to ask for a public hearing at Thursday’s council meeting. The County Council meets the third Thursday of every month.

County Council president Tom Harris told WANE 15 Thursday that Peters “requested Allen County Council to consider the adoption of a .2% LIT rate and therefore to hold a public hearing in September for its approval.” Harris was one of two – the other being councilman Don Wyss – to vote for the jail lit in July.

“Yesterday I went to the Allen County Council with a request to consider another public hearing for purposes of entertaining another proposal from us at their September County Council meeting. That will all precede the meeting on September 29,” Peters said after the Friday Commissioners’ meeting.

That means Peters is requesting a public hearing before the next County Council meeting on Sept. 21.

It is up to County Council to decide whether or not they’ll have that public hearing, Peters said.

And it’s also up to the federal judge to subpoena County Council members to appear at the Sept. 29 status hearing. The council was not included in the original federal lawsuit.

The Indiana ACLU has asked “to depose a couple of council members before that meeting,” Peters said, but Leichty has not yet responded. It is expected he will make a decision on that issue on Monday at a hearing.

Peters believes that the commissioners are “in a far better position” than they were when the process started in June 2022 when Peters, representing the commissioners, was berated and scolded for allowing inhumane conditions to flourish. Leichty blamed it on the indifference of the county.

“The Board of Commissioners has done absolutely everything that the judge has requested to get to this point,” Peters said. “We can not, we are not the fiscal body, and we cannot force another separately elected official to make a decision one way or another.

“All we can do is present the best evidence that we have and have them make a decision based on that presentation.”

WANE 15 will continue its coverage of this topic leading up to the status hearing and beyond.