HARDIN – Gov. Brian Schweitzer toured the empty Hardin jail on Tuesday and defended himself against frustrated city and detention center leaders who said the state hasn’t done enough to try to open the facility.
The fate of the center is in a legal battle between the city, which owns the jail, and the state, which says the city can’t develop contracts to take out-of-state inmates.
Hardin leaders had promoted the privately built, 464-bed jail as the city’s biggest economic development project in decades. But contracts for inmates were never lined up, and the $27 million building has sat empty since its completion last year.
During the tour, Schweitzer confronted leaders of the Two Rivers Detention Center by unfurling a sign that a jail supporter left at the Capitol on March 11.
The sign read “We’ve been Schweitzerized. Was it as good for you governor, as it was for us?”
Schweitzer said the sign was juvenile and was directed “to a person who wasn’t even governor when this plan was concocted.”
Greg Smith, executive director of Two Rivers Authority, the city’s economic development agency, said the group traveled to Helena to get Schweitzer’s attention. He took responsibility for the sign even though it was created and carried by individuals not orchestrated by jail leaders.
Hardin City Attorney Rebecca Convery stood her ground against Schweitzer, saying TRA leaders tried for months to get a meeting with the governor and his staff.
“What we have done, is we have tried to come to you,” she said.
Schweitzer agreed that his administration, corrections authorities and the attorney general would do what they could to open the jail.
“We weren’t with you in the beginning, but we’re with you today,” he said, noting that the Legislature may have to change state laws during its January 2009 session.
Meanwhile, Schweitzer said, the Hardin facility could try to secure a contract for a 116-bed sexual offender treatment center, which could open by April 2009.
The jail also could explore a contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he said.
But that plan could face hurdles. Although Attorney General Mike McGrath’s opinion doesn’t exclude bringing in BIA prisoners, some of the motions the state has filed in the lawsuit does, Convery said.
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