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Use of inmate work crews draws ire of Smithsburg council

May 29, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

SMITHSBURG -- Smithsburg's mayor and town council held an emergency meeting Friday after two council members complained the town had been using an inmate work crew without formal approval from the council and without notifying town police.

A six-inmate crew has been clearing brush in Veterans Park since Tuesday under the supervision of a correctional officer and with direction from the town's public works director, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The department provides the free services of carefully vetted prerelease inmates through a program it has promoted vigorously in recent years to communities across the state.

Councilman Donnie Souders Jr. said he was taken aback when he saw the crew working Thursday, given the council never voted to approve the use of inmates in the park.

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Souders said as a resident and a parent, he is concerned about having inmates work in community parks, playgrounds and residential areas. He said he supported the general concept of inmate work crews, particularly for work in low-contact areas, such as along highways, but he thought residents should be alerted and their feelings about the work crew should be taken into consideration before putting inmates to work in parks and residential areas.

Denise Gelsinger, acting facility administrator for the pre-release center at the Maryland Correctional Training Center, said she hand-picked the inmates for Smithsburg's crew and ensured none had sex offense or predatory histories because they would be working in a park and near a school.

Most of the inmates in the Smithsburg crew are drug offenders and almost are scheduled for release within the next year, Vernarelli said. The department does everything it can to ensure they are not escape risks and do not have histories of violence, he said.

Souders said another concern was that the town's police chief was not aware the inmates were working in the park until Souders informed him. Souders said he thought the police department, at the least, should have been notified of the work crew's presence.

Smithsburg Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers said the lack of notification was an oversight.

Acting Police Chief George Knight was not at Friday's meeting, but sent a letter saying he had talked to the town's public works director and was satisfied he would be notified about inmate work crews in the future. Knight wrote he was not opposed to using the inmates, who save the town money and make the town look better.

Councilman Jerome Martin said he had no problem with using an inmate work crew, but it should not have been authorized to begin work without a vote from the council. If the use of a work crew had been put to a vote, Martin said he would have stipulated that police department and school officials must be notified of the work schedule before the work could begin.

Myers countered that Souders and Martin should have been aware of the decision to use the work crew because it was made at a parks commission meeting attended by the other three council members, Dennis "Jack" Wenthe, Shirley Aurand and Charles "Bud" Lucassen.

Council representatives who attend the meetings of town commissions and committees are responsible for disseminating important information from those meetings to the rest of the council, Myers said.

Souders said he would like to see the town put in place more specific guidelines for which types of commission actions require approval from the council.

The council voted 4-1 Friday to authorize the inmate crew to continue its work through the end of June, with Souders opposed.

That work will consist of brush clearing in the newly acquired area of Veterans Park near Cave Hill Road and around the pond in Lions Park, Public Works Director William Loughridge said.

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