Candidates for commissioner, prothonotary make case at NAACP forum

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Two sitting commissioners defended their contract with controversial prison contractor Corrections Special Applications Unit at an NAACP candidate forum Monday.

President Commissioner Julie Wheeler and Commissioner Doug Hoke both said the prison was better for having contracted with C-SAU.

"The program has worked well over the years," said Hoke, who serves as president of the Prison Board of Inspectors. "I think the prison itself is on a good course. Our people have been trained, we don't have the contractor anymore, and I think we're in a good place."

Wheeler said the data backed up contracting with C-SAU.

"We've seen a reduction in worker's compensation issues as well as a reduction to injuries to the inmates," Wheeler said.

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Neither commented on the litigation brought by inmates at York County Prison alleging human rights abuses by prison employees and C-SAU. When York County explored contracting with C-SAU for a second time in 2021, the NAACP and others sharply criticized the contractor, which has had a number of controversies at other prisons across the country.

Both Wheeler and Hoke sought to reassure the public that York County was on the right track. Democratic candidate Keena Minifield, running for public office for the first time, said she'd bring a new perspective if elected.

"There's so much I'd want to bring to the table as a commissioner," Minifield said.

One area in which the current commissioners disagreed was on mail-in ballots. Wheeler, a Republican, said she would not allow for ballots with incorrect dates to be counted.

"The statute is clear on what can and can't be accepted. We do not accept ballots that are not dated or incorrectly dated," Wheeler said.

In contrast, Hoke noted other counties do allow for curing ballots, like Adams County. He said the statute is up for interpretation and that if the voter is registered on the rolls and meets the standards, he would be for counting the vote.

"I'm on the side where as long as the ballot is received by the time that it should be received, it should be counted," Minifield said.

Another question for the candidates regarded the possible creation of a human relations commission similar to what York City has and a countywide health department.

While Wheeler acknowledged that the county was not as prepared as it could be for the pandemic and that there were "holistic, systemic issues" in the county, she was not in favor of establishing a health department with county tax dollars. That did not rule out receiving funding from the state or health care providers, however. She also opposed the creation of a human relations commission, saying the data did not show a need for it.

Hoke noted that a study had been commissioned by the commissioners in 2020 to study how a countywide health department could be created, but that there had been no real follow up since.

"We didn't have a real follow up as far as what the costs are and what the data was, so I'm hoping in the future we'll look at some information at the county health department and it'll come before the commissioners to make a decision," Hoke said.

Minifield, for her part, said the county should get input from people on their everyday life to assist in developing departments into the best they can be.

The candidates also fielded a question regarding difficulty in attracting and maintaining high-quality employees. In response, Hoke said that the county had lost a lot of institutional knowledge, but that the county had worked to increase wages and that it was on the right track.

"There's nothing more important than your employees," Hoke said.

Wheeler echoed Hoke, saying that the county can't pay what the private sector does but is working to offer competitive wages and benefits. The county has used American Rescue Plan Act funding to give signing and retention bonuses.

"We have an employee engagement committee," Wheeler said. "One of their priorities is to talk about what things they need additionally for our employees to create a welcoming workplace."

Minifield proposed creating training programs for high schoolers to open up different avenues for them to be employed by the county.

"I think it's really important for there to be a good work-life balance," Minifield said.

In his closing statement, Hoke pointed to his record as commissioner. Wheeler used most of her closing statement to fully answer the question on a countywide health department; she had been cut off by the moderator for going over the minute allocated to the question.

"I think I've made fiscal responsible decisions through the years," Hoke said. "I hope in your review of all the candidates running for public office that you'll look at the records. I hope over the years that I've earned your vote."

In contrast, Minifield said she'd being a fresh perspective.

"I really feel I could bring a different perspective to the table and government and voting. I'm an advocate for the people, and I plan to make myself as available as possible," Minifield said.

Also running for commissioner is incumbent Republican Ron Smith and newcomer Republican Scott Burford, who did not attend.

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Prothonotary candidates make case: Current Prothonotary Allison Blew and Democratic candidate Adam Jones also had a short candidate forum Monday.

Blew, a Republican who was first elected in 2019, noted that while the prothonotary's office cannot offer legal advice, they're often dealing with people on the worst day of their lives and endeavor to provide good quality customer service.

"I'm proud of the work that my team and I have done, and I hope to continue that for the next four years," Blew said.

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Jones said he was the victim of a violent crime seven years ago. Since then, he's worked to solve violent crime, including the creation of a tech company, Zeer, which created an app to connect people with emergency services and provide a livestream without talking.

"My attacker was picked up 20 minutes later, bloody, with my money in his pocket. He had just threatened to rape my friend. A year after when I'd gotten out of my coma, he was acquitted. For the last five years I've been trying to solve violent crime," Jones said. "In the meantime, I decided I could help people better by helping them file protection from abuse orders, get out of dangerous situations and receive justice in the civil courts system even if I could not receive it in the criminal one."

When asked about diversity in the prothonotary's office, Blew pointed to the four Spanish-speaking employees, saying they're extremely helpful and that they try to recruit from the entire county. Jones said diversifying is helpful because it allows for different perspectives of people's lives, and he would try to find people for the prothonotary's office that care about the county and the problems they want to solve.

To watch the full NAACP candidate forum, including candidates in the York City Council Democratic primary, visit the NAACP Facebook page. The primary election is May 16.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.