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As Shuman reopens, Allegheny County Council to consider new oversight of detention center

Zoe Fuller
/
90.5 WESA

With the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center reopening after a three-year hiatus this week, one county council member wants a new board to oversee the facility.

Bethany Hallam has drafted a bill to create a nine-member “Juvenile Detention Board of Managers.” Members would be responsible for the operation and maintenance of the center, and duties would include ensuring adequate living conditions and “oversight of the health and safekeeping of juvenile detainees.”

“If something is going wrong in Shuman, they have the authority to fix that,” Hallam said.

It would be distinct from a board of advisors required bystate statute, which has no legal right to intervene should the facility violate its license to operate. The Court of Common Pleas and Pennsylvania Department of Human Services are currently the only bodies with the statutory authority to manage a county juvenile detention facility.

The advisory board “doesn't actually have any teeth,” said Hallam. “This board of managers would bring back actual oversight.”

Hallam argued that the county needs an oversight body with real power because, rather than running Shuman itself, it has contracted with the Latrobe-based nonprofit Adelphoi to be in charge.

If it is created, the board would include County Executive Sara Innamorato, County Controller Corey O’Connor, two members of County Council chosen by council’s president, and five citizen members appointed by the Court of Common Pleas president judge and County Council.

Hallam said the citizen members could include social workers, people with experience in healthcare, representatives of the court and community advocates.

But the proposal seems likely to renew a debate about the council’s role in the center’s operations – a dispute that has been working its way through the court system since last fall.

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In September 2023, council members voted to sue former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the Court of Common Pleas over their decision to contract with Adelphoi, which is worth up to $73 million over five years (not including the cost of ongoing construction and renovations).

Lawyers for County Council argued the executive branch illegally bypassed the legislative branch by signing the deal without council approval. The county’s Home Rule Charter gives council the power to “lease, convey, vacate or abandon, or permit the use of County land, buildings or other real or personal property”: Council members said that language applies to contracts that allow third parties to use the space.

Hallam said the same provision gives council the authority to establish the board of managers. “We own the building that is Shuman. We decide who runs it,” she said. “That's the whole focal point of our lawsuit. It is absolutely within our jurisdiction to create an oversight board.”

The original dispute has yet to be resolved. The county’s legal department argues that Adelphoi is providing the county with a service, which the county executive has the sole authority to manage. A judge refused to throw out council’s suit in March.

Abigail Gardner, a spokeswoman for Innamorato, said the county solicitor’s office is reviewing Hallam’s newly proposed ordinance.

“While the contract for the Shuman Center was signed prior to County Executive Innamorato’s tenure, we have focused on a new vision for the facility, community input and accountability since taking office,” Gardner said. “Over the last several months, there have been conversations with County Council about reestablishing a strong advisory board to complement the oversight already outlined in the contract with Adelphoi.”

Innamorato nominated appointees to the advisory board in mid-June: Gardner said all “are experts in their fields, community focused, and have deep experience with Shuman.”

A spokesperson for Adelphoi said the first phase of the project includes 12 beds for “newly arrested juveniles.” The 20 children currently held at Allegheny County Jail will not be moved to the center until the next phase. Shuman will have a full capacity of 60 beds, though a timeline for when those will open is not in place.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.