Lawsuit: Wayne Co. didn't give voters fair notice of jail bond issuance

Nicquel Terry Ellis
The Detroit News
Wayne County signed off on a $533 million proposal from businessman Dan Gilbert to build a criminal justice complex that would allow the county to shutter its aging jail and court facilities. This artist's rendering shows the new complex.

A trio of Wayne County residents are suing the county saying officials failed to provide sufficient notice of their intent to issue bonds for the construction of a new criminal justice complex. 

The federal lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, alleges that Wayne County's notice published in The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press on April 17 did not accurately describe the project and that it was published in a manner that minimized its reach to Wayne County voters. 

The plaintiffs — Rashad Buni, Denzel McCampbell and Branden Snyder — say this deprived them of their ability to collect signatures for a referendum that would have allowed citizens to vote on the bond issuance. 

"It makes you wonder if the county did this deliberately," said Eric Williams, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Wayne County maintains that it met all requirements in its notice of intent to issue bonds. 

“The county gave proper notice," said Zenna Elhasan, the county's corporation counsel.  "We will seek dismissal of this frivolous lawsuit.”

The Wayne County Commission approved a resolution earlier this year, noting the county’s intent to issue bonds valued at no more than $425 million to cover its portion of the criminal justice center cost.

County officials say they plan to use about $300 million in new bonds, $55 million in existing IRS bonds from the unfinished jail project on Gratiot, and $35 million in general fund dollars for the new complex. Rock Ventures is paying $153 million, plus any overruns.

The complex will include a 2,280-bed jail, sheriff and prosecutor staff and administrative offices, courtrooms, hearing rooms, and a 160-bed juvenile detention facility. It could be completed by summer 2022 with a groundbreaking this October. 

Snyder, a Detroit resident, said many community members are against the new jail complex and that he was prepared to gather the required signatures for a ballot initiative.

County residents have 45 days to submit a petition for referendum from the day the notice is published. 

The lawsuit alleges that Snyder contacted the office of County Commissioner Tim Killeen on May 7 for information regarding the notice, and he was told it hadn't been published yet. 

"The misleading comments of public officials and the fact that community members
actively looking for the notice missed its publication strongly suggest that the notice was
published with an eye towards minimizing actual notice," the lawsuit says. 

Williams said he believes the county intentionally chose to publish the notice in The News and Free Press on a Tuesday when there is no home delivery service.

He also said the notice is vague because the word "jail" is not used, and it doesn't specify important details such as what facilities will be built and where they will be located. 

"The purpose of notice is that people who have a right to referendum can look at it and make a decision on whether they want to pursue a referendum," Williams said. "The county deliberately left out that information." 

The lawsuit states that the plaintiffs' "due process rights" were violated by the "inadequate notice" and seeks to have the county re-issue the notice of intent to issue bonds. 

Snyder said he would rather see the bond money used to improve schools, job training, neighborhoods and reduce crime. 

"We had people interested in talking about how public resources should be used and they didn’t have a chance to have their voices heard," Snyder said. "I think that they can find a better use for the money they are spending on this jail."

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