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Panhandle loses voice on jails

December 28, 1998|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Jim Smith's pending departure from the Berkeley County Commission is casting some uncertainty on how much political clout the county will have when it comes time to make a decision on the fate of the old regional jail near Martinsburg.

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With six months left in his four-year term as a county commission member of the state Jail Authority Board, Smith resigned his board position last month after he opted not to run for a second commissioner term. The current term expires on Thursday.

"I didn't want to be a lame-duck member (of the Jail Authority)," Smith said.

Berkeley County's loss of representation on the Jail Authority comes at a time when state officials are trying to decide what to do with the old jail once the new Eastern Regional Jail opens next year.

Overcrowding forced the state to build the new $17 million jail behind the current one less than nine years after it opened.

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While state officials look at several possible uses for the old facility, Berkeley County Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart expressed some concern about his county no longer having a representative on the state jail board.

"There's always a concern about losing a voice on a state commission," Burkhart said. "Everybody likes representation."

Burkhart said he would have liked to have seen the old jail used as a juvenile detention facility but said that option is likely too expensive. Officials have estimated it could cost more than $1 million to remodel the jail to house juveniles.

Other possibilities include using the facility for treatment of drug and alcohol offenders or leasing the jail to the U.S. government to house federal prisoners.

Burkhart said the county will now have to wait to see who Gov. Cecil H. Underwood names as Smith's replacement.

Steven Canterbury, executive director for the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, said the governor's office appoints the nine-member board, which was created in 1986 and is made up of state and local officials as well as a doctor and a lawyer from the private sector.

The jail authority board must have two county commissioners and a sheriff, said Canterbury. The three county representatives must include both Republicans and Democrats, he said.

Canterbury said Smith could have served until Underwood made a new appointment and added that Smith was a highly respected member of the jail authority.

"Jim Smith is one of the most respected men in the state," Canterbury said. "He's really a class act."

Canterbury said he expects the process to replace Smith to begin next month but would not speculate on the chances Underwood would appoint someone from Berkeley County or the Eastern Panhandle.

"I don't want to tie the governor's hands," Canterbury said.

Canterbury, however, said he doubted Berkeley County would see any negative effects if Underwood chooses someone from elsewhere in the state.

Several Eastern Panhandle politicians have shown an interest in jail issues, including Del. Dale Manuel (D-Jefferson), who co-chairs the oversight committee for West Virginia's regional jails, correctional facilities and juvenile services, said Canterbury.

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