We should all be concerned that county officials weren’t forthcoming about ICE jail

We at the Herald strive to keep the public informed. Whether it’s routine business from a meeting of the Evanston City Council, new curriculum adopted by the school district, a new community event, a high-profile murder trial or controversial public meetings, community members are likely to see our reporters out and about everywhere as we strive to provide residents with the information they need to know. 

As hard as we work to do this, however, with our small staff we absolutely depend on public officials, organizational leaders and the public in general to keep us informed. We can’t very well keep the public in the loop when we ourselves are kept out of that loop. 

Whether we personally have differences of opinion with some folks is irrelevant to our work; we endeavor to maintain open communication and positive working relationships no matter the situation. We recognize that from time to time ensuring the public is informed means that local officials may not like the news we bring to our readers. That is an unfortunate byproduct of what we do. Good journalists report the news — even when it may be unflattering or critical of people who we ourselves truly like and respect. This can be especially difficult in a small, close-knit community such as ours, but it’s work we take seriously and in which we invest enormous resources. 

Given that investment, then, we were surprised to learn that Management & Training Corporation (MTC) had recently notified the Uinta County Commissioners the company was no longer seeking to construct an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in the county. We were absolutely shocked to learn this not from a county official but from a representative of WyoSayNo, the statewide group formed to oppose the facility, who learned of the decision by chance when sifting through emails following a public records request for all documents related to the proposal. 

Though we at the Herald have not yet had the opportunity to inspect all of these emails ourselves (we have submitted our own records request but do not yet have the documents), it is clear from what we have seen that county officials knew of MTC’s decision nearly a month ago and opted not to inform the public. 

We have to wonder, if the folks at WyoSayNo had not discovered this on their own and shared that information, when exactly would county officials have notified anyone of this development? 

We recognize that this has been an ongoing and evolving situation for nearly 2-1/2 years. We recognize that a different company very quickly expressed interest in pursuing the proposal following MTC’s decision. We recognize this has been a very contentious and controversial issue for our community. 

That is precisely why a press release should have been issued and the public kept informed as soon as possible. 

We appreciate that Uinta County Clerk Amanda Hutchinson took steps to draft a press release in late July; however, we are deeply disappointed and concerned that Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas advised Hutchinson to be less than forthcoming.

To put it simply, lack of transparency about something as contentious as this leads to suspicion. It begs the question: “What else is being discussed out of public view?”

We have been told that the county anticipated MTC would issue its own press release. We have been told that when public officials have been asked directly about the matter, those questions have been answered directly. We find both of those defenses unsatisfactory. 

Enough time had elapsed that it was clear MTC was not going to issue a press release and the public shouldn’t be expected to seek out officials to ask them directly what is happening, especially when that public has been previous assured on multiple occasions that when it came time to move forward and the formal Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued by the federal government there would be ample opportunity for public discussion. 

In looking at the timeline of events, a few things are clear. The formal RFP was issued by ICE on July 17 with a proposal response date of Sept. 13. By July 26, county officials knew MTC had opted not to pursue it and discussed issuing a press release and mentioned the fact that the timeline for action was still six weeks out. County officials said they were contacted quickly by CoreCivic, the company that stepped in when MTC opted out, and arranged to tour a facility in California for vetting purposes on Aug. 21. 

What this timeline reveals is that county officials have known for weeks that the situation had changed and that the timeline required action on the RFP by mid-September. When, exactly, were county officials planning on having these opportunities for community input when the community didn’t even know anything had changed?

Elected officials are absolutely beholden to the public and should be committed to transparency and open communication. We as a populace have come to expect the complete lack of both from national politicians and even from statewide leaders. To have our local officials demonstrate the same lack of transparency, no matter what the stated reasons, is distressing and, frankly, unacceptable.