Madison County Board member has worked for company hired for jail project

News-DemocratOctober 19, 2013 

A Madison County Board member says there's nothing improper about his involvement with a company that worked on a study for the county on renovating the jail.

Jack Minner is listed on the website for Edwardsville-based Farmer Environmental Services as the company's "business development manager." The company was not hired by the county, but was a subcontractor for another company, AAIC, which the County Board hired to conduct a "needs assessment" for the jail.

The companies' needs assessment ended with a recommendation for $17.9 million in improvements at the jail. On Wednesday, the County Board voted 20-7 to borrow $18 million for the renovation.

Minner, an Edwardsville Democrat, said he wasn't even aware of Farmer Environmental's involvement in the project until it was brought up by a Republican at the board's meeting Wednesday.

"I did a little part-time work for Farmer when I first sold my shop," said Minner, the former owner of a service station. "The last couple of years, I haven't worked for them at all."

Minner said he is friends with an owner of Farmer Environmental, but hadn't spoken recently with the owner.

County Administrator Joe Parente said the county's $90,000 contract for the needs assessment was paid to AAIC. The contract listed a $3,000 expense for studying environmental issues such as asbestos, but no specific firm was listed to do that work, Parente said. AAIC chose Farmer on its own for the environmental portion of the assessment, according to Parente.

"When we went out for proposals and selected AAIC, they did not list Farmer in their contract," Parente said.

Minner said, "We gave the job to AAIC, and they hired the people with the special skills to do things they needed."

Minner, chairman of the board's Finance and Government Operations Committee, has been a proponent of the borrowing deal for the jail project, and voted in favor of it on Wednesday. At an earlier board meeting, in September, he urged the board to act quickly to take advantage of low interest rates.

"I believe interest rates can only go up," Minner said at the meeting in September.

Some Republican board members have opposed the borrowing, suggesting the county instead dip into a $23 million reserve fund. Some Republicans also have asked that the issue be put to voters in the form of a referendum.

But no board members have questioned the need for the renovation, according to Minner and Parente.

Minner said, "A lot of them have gone through the jail. We've all had an opportunity to tour the jail and see the problems going on."

Parente said, "I think the board agrees there's a need for it."

Board member Lisa Ciampoli, a Collinsville Republican, brought up Minner's connection to Farmer Environmental during the board's meeting Wednesday.

"I just think, for the public's sake, that it's always better to recuse yourself if there appears to be a conflict of interest," Ciampoli said. "I'm not accusing him of anything, I'm just stating the facts. It doesn't pass the smell test to me."

Ciampoli said she's not necessarily against doing some renovation at the jail, but thinks maybe a "scaled-down version" would be more appropriate. She said she also favors letting residents vote in a referendum.

The needs assessment found that the 35-year-old jail is overcrowded and practically obsolete, with space problems, energy-cost problems and safety issues.

Minner said the jail was originally designed to hold about 100 inmates, but now has about 300.

"It's antiquated in certain respects, and all of these repairs and changes that we're doing are all much-needed," he said. "The work has to be done. We're mandated to have a jail; we're mandated to have a safe jail."

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

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