GARY — An immigrant detention center could land here unless the City Council takes a final vote on two zoning variance requests.
The city's Board of Zoning Appeals on April 12 recommended 3-1 to deny variance requests by a subsidiary of The Geo Group, a multinational for-profit prison and detention center operator. The variances are needed in order for the company to build the immigrant processing center on land across the street from the Gary/Chicago International Airport.
It is standard practice for these requests to be referred to committee. In a raucous and confusing meeting Tuesday night, the requests were passed on first reading with the intent that it would go to the council's planning committee. A second vote, however, was needed before it actually was sent to that committee.
In this case, that vote was split, 4-4, and the variance requests were not referred to committee.
Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade, D-6, who said she is opposed to the facility, thought with that second vote the petition would die right there.
Councilman Herb Smith, D-at large, however, made a request the matter be brought up for third and final reading at the May 4 City Council meeting. Despite some initial concern that a supermajority vote might be needed to advance the proposal, Rinzer Williams, who serves as the attorney for the council, said only a simple majority will be required to approve or deny the two variance requests.
Smith has gone back and forth since Tuesday's meeting, about whether he will indeed bring the petitions forward at the May 4 meeting. He was under the impression that if he didn't bring the matter up for vote that it would be dead.
However, if the matter is not heard at that meeting or another meeting before the middle of July, GEO's petitions for variance requests apparently would be approved — despite the negative vote from the Board of Zoning Appeals and the lack of action by the City Council.
According to Indiana State Code relating to municipalities within Lake County: "The legislative body shall vote on the petition within ninety (90) days after the board of zoning appeals makes its recommendation. If the legislative body does not vote to deny the petition within 90 days, the petition is considered approved."
Sparks-Wade said she was unaware of this regulation. Council President Ron Brewer, D-at large, said he would look into the code to see how it applies in the current situation. He added that Tuesday was the first time he had seen an ordinance or petition fail to be referred out to committee for a hearing.
Williams also said he was going to look into the regulation, although he thought the issue would be moot because he believed the matter would be brought up for a vote.
Representatives of organizations opposing the detention center, including the Rev. Cheryl Rivera, with the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations, were researching the code, too.
In the meantime, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said he would strongly oppose such a facility coming to Hammond. He said the city has not been contacted by GEO, but that he has heard the city has been mentioned as a possible site if Gary turns down the project. Armando Saleh, a spokesman for GEO, said only Gary and Hobart have been proposed by GEO as sites for the detention center.