Pottawatomie County commissioners on Monday unanimously approved entering into contract negotiations with Community Works to take over management of Carter Hall Juvenile Detention Center.

Pottawatomie County commissioners on Monday unanimously approved entering into contract negotiations with Community Works to take over management of Carter Hall Juvenile Detention Center.

An agenda item to discuss the matter drew a large crowd to the courthouse for the board’s weekly meeting, including several staff members from Carter Hall.

Initially, commissioners talked about tabling the item, but then discussion, sparked by questions from Carter Hall staff along with further comments from others, including representatives of Community Works, resulted in a vote to begin negotiations to finalize the contract, which need some revising.

Carter Hall, which sits adjacent to the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center, has been managed by the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center Trust since the new jail was built about 10 years ago, with the county subcontracting management to the trust on a yearly basis.

Commissioners, after much research, had an outside company, Community Works, based in Norman, make a presentation during last week’s county commission meeting.

Commissioner Melissa Dennis, who said Community Works is in the “kid business,” began researching alternatives for Carter Hall about a year ago.

Dennis, who said Carter Hall Commander Kristin Harlin does an “awesome, awesome job,” said, “This is strictly a management change.”

Dennis, responding to concerns she’s heard, said it wasn’t true that Community Works would do away with employees.

“In the last year, you’ve done an amazing job,” Dennis said to crowd, adding that before that, Carter Hall was operating with its finances in the red.

“I tell you from the bottom of my heart, I’m in this for the kids of Pottawatomie County,” Dennis said, adding that in her opinion, she felt the adult jail and Carter Hall operations need to be separated.

“This is not a personal attack on the trust and not a personal attack on the employees,” Dennis said, “We’re strictly moving an umbrella from the jail to Community Works…I think this is a positive move…once you get passed the hype, you will see the positive.”

James Johnson, the former superintendent of Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh, is the director of the Cleveland County Juvenile Detention Center, which is operated by Community Works and has been for seven years.

He spoke to the board about providing services for the children and what would happen if they managed Carter Hall, which would remain a county-owned entity.

“It’s our desire to run the detention center with existing staff,” Johnson said, adding he anticipates a slow transition, if approved.

While Johnson said he couldn’t visit with any staff members of Carter Hall until an agreement was approved, he said he had visited with Harlin about questions she had.

“Our plan is to keep everything in place but bring in fresh ideas,” he said, while utilizing line staff to manage together.

“They know the facility and they know the environment,” Johnson said.

Dennis, who said she’s heard nothing but positive things about Community Works, said, “I stand steadfast this is a positive move.”

Shawnee Police Chief Russell Frantz, who also sits on the jail trust board, spoke briefly and asked about backup and transport issues.

Frantz questioned transportation issues, as Carter Hall staff now handles all juvenile transports. If Community Works doesn’t do transports, he said it could provide more of a load for both sheriff’s deputies and local law enforcement.

He also questioned security as the jail and Carter Hall staff work hand-in-hand and share equipment and responsibilities.

Frantz, who said the staff has done a good job getting both facilities operating in the black, told commissioners he found it odd that they want to change leadership at Carter Hall when leadership has turned both facilities around.

Transportation issues were further discussed, with Commissioner Eddie Stackhouse adding that statutes would require the sheriff’s office to transport the juveniles.

Johnson said Community Works leaves transports to law enforcement officers and said Pottawatomie County is the only one that he knows of where juvenile center employees are doing transports. Discussion indicated the Office of Juvenile Affairs reimburses sheriff’s offices for the deputy’s time and mileage for such transports.

As far as backup concerns, Johnson said they rely on staff to handle situations, but when needed, they will call in local law enforcement.

While Commissioner Randy Thomas suggested the board table the item to allow for further consideration, Dennis suggested they take advantage of everyone being present at the meeting and encouraged the board to ask any questions they may have.

Tracy Spurgin from Community Works spoke as well.

“Our intent is to only enhance programs and staff you have…it’s simply to enhance what you’ve got,” Spurgin said.

Dennis asked for the opinion of Special District Judge Dawson Engle, who was in attendance. Engle said he likes the idea of Community Works having contracts with several different places for placing juveniles. He also said he wouldn’t support anything if Commander Harlin wasn’t going to be staying at the facility.

“If you don’t keep her, I’m, not going to be happy,” Engle said.

Harlin, who responded, said she can’t do what she does without “all these guys,” pointing to about six or seven Carter Hall staff members in attendance.

Harlin, who has been with Carter Hall five years, has been commander the past year or so, during which time the facility has seen a dramatic turnaround.

“It’s not me — the potential was there along. They just needed someone to lead them in the right direction,” Harlin said.

She said benefits are a concern for her employees with this possible change, with further discussion revealing that Community Works has low turnover rates amongst its employees.

One Carter Hall employee stood and asked about pay and said if what they receive now decreases, the employees won’t be able to feed their families.

Dennis, who said they aren’t involved in that protocol, said Community Works would meet with employees if this change were approved.

Another Carter Hall employee stood and told commissioners they have a “fear of the unknown,” which Dennis said she understood.

James said they are continually providing better health insurance for employees and said employees have opportunities in many Community Works facilities, not just juvenile detention.

Spurgin said employee retention rates in the 13-year-old company are 87 and 88 percent and they also offer educational opportunities.

The commissioner’s legal counsel, Assistant District Attorney Tracy McDaniel, said there were some typographical errors and a few minor changes that needed to be made to the contract before it was approved.

So instead of approving the contract, Dennis made a motion to enter into negotiations with Community Works to finalize the wording in that contract, with Thomas seconding and all three voting in favor.

Watch for updates.