Madison City Council renews Three Springs business license with safety requirements

MADISON, Ala. – The Madison City Council renewed the business license of a controversial facility in Madison Monday evening at a late meeting.

Three Springs (Sequel TSI Madison) is a treatment facility for at-risk Alabama youth. The community has been on edge since two residents escaped last year and are accused of murdering a Georgia man at a Madison Publix site.

Now, the Madison City Council decided what to do about Three Springs’ (Sequel’s) business license.  They will renew it, but will require that the facility do a safety audit and return the results within 90 days. They decided to place security conditions on the license instead of renewing it without the added requirement. The council vote was 4-3, with Maura Wroblewski, Greg Shaw, and John Seifert voting against.

“We as a mayor/council are still deeply concerned about the safety for our citizens, but at this time, based on the many things they have done to improve safety, we are willing to continue to move forward,” said Mayor Paul Finley. “The independent safety audit can confirm that anything else that can be done to make sure the people in there, stay in there, will be taken care of.”

Finley said the council really heard the community, but they also heard the Sequel representatives and attorney who came to the public meeting on Tuesday. They recognize Three Springs is a necessary part of the community, but they want to make sure what’s happening there is best for all involved. Sequel will now have stipulations tied to its business license that it reports safety concerns and incidents, while increasing community involvement and communication.

“We understand the big picture, service, of what they do at Sequel for troubled youth. If we don’t take care of them now, they will be back in our community in a different way. But in the same sense, a serious incident happened where someone lost their life, and we take that seriously as well,” Finley said.

After the vote, Finley said that as Sequel and the city continue to communicate, he will take responsibility to facilitate the discussion.

“We want nobody to get out but also get an understanding of what a path forward looks like,” he told the Three Springs/Sequel representatives.

The Public Hearing

The council held a public hearing on the status of Sequel’s business license to operate Three Springs on Monday, and at times it became tense.

Megan Zingarelli, City Attorney, began by explaining the multiple concerns surrounding Three Springs from criminal incidents to escapes, security, and the Publix incident where Van Johnson was killed. That case, while pending in Limestone County court, has the community on edge. She said a kitchen door had been left unlocked and other lapses in security contributed to that escape.

Zingarelli pointed out that Three Springs has not had anyone escape since that night in August 2017. The leaders at Three Springs have been engaging with the city and holding monthly meetings.

Chief David Jernigan of Madison Police explained more about the homicide investigation from last August. He said he believed that the facility was now properly contained by fencing and that he believes with the addition of additional cameras and door locks he feels better about security at Three Springs.

Jernigan said that after the homicide, the department changed its policy on Three Springs runaways. “Runaways” will now be classified in the city’s eyes as “escapes,” and they will require an immediate response from the police department and an equally immediate response from Sequel.

“I believe that at the current time, the facility is safe as it can be. But I think it needs to be constantly monitored,” he explained.

Sequel then brought up representatives to explain what’s been going on there since August, from adding alarms to doors, increasing student to staff ratio, evaluating safety, and policy changes.

The representatives said Three Springs is heavily regulated by the state, both the Department of Youth Services and the Department of Human Resources. They said the facility had never been cited or sanctioned. 71% of the students there are from Madison County or the surrounding counties, although students can attend Three Springs from counties all over the state.

“We take care of kids. We take care of those kids who no one else wants to take care of. We hope kids have educational success and employment opportunities. We also provide a safe haven for kids who would otherwise be on the streets or unsupervised in your community as well as ours,” the Sequel regional director said.

When Sequel’s attorney got up to speak, many council members stated they felt he was threatening them. He demanded that they consider the law and renew the business license without stipulations, explaining how many regulations (452) reply to the business and just how heavily regulated they are. He said the council’s decision should not be based on the public outcry, but the law. He seemed to imply that legal action would be taken if Sequel’s business license were revoked.

“Sequel has not been cited for anything. Think about that,” he said. “What happened is very unfortunate. It’s extremely unfortunate. I’m sure everybody in this room would love to be able to go back to the day before this occurred and prevent it. Myself included. It’s horrible. It’s tragic. But, you can’t hold Sequel liable for it. You can’t. Legally, they’re not responsible for what happened. They’re not liable from a criminal or civil standpoint anymore than the city is. The action that you decide to take today, this evening, will affect the future operations of this business. The best course of action to take is to issue the business license.”

Then the public was invited to speak. Some, who live near Three Springs, asked for Sequel’s license to be revoked.

“This is not just a public relations crisis,” said one citizen. “This is an existential crisis for them. They have irretrievably lost the trust of the community.”

Another woman suggested that it bothers her Sequel has not gotten citations from the state agencies that regulate them. She said if they’re not getting citations for what has gone on, there must be a problem with oversight.

Others, like Madison County Commissioner Steve Haraway, said he wished for Three Springs to be asked to relocate somewhere away from Madison neighborhoods.

“They need to move out of the city,” said Madison County Commissioner Steve Haraway. “It’s time for them to move on. It’s time for them to go somewhere else.”

One person got up to speak and speak in support of Sequel and what they do to support at-risk youth. He said it would be a shame if they were asked to leave.

“Please don’t take this away from our community. Our kids need a place to go when they’ve reached this place in their life. And it would be a loss for us not to have it,” he explained.

In the following back-and-forth with council members, the tension was evident. The Sequel attorney later apologized for how he came off, as council members accused him of being threatening. He said that was not how it was intended.

Council members hammered Sequel representatives about why they were located in Madison, how many of the students there actually come from the community in Madison, and how many incidents have occurred involving Three Springs in recent years.

“You’ve listened to everything we’ve said. You’ve worked together with us,” Finley said of the local representation from Sequel. “But what else are we going to do?”

“The event that happened, the attorney said, that you guys were not responsible,” commented Teddy Powell. “The kids can just walk out and they’re responsible? Obviously, there’s an issue. It would be your job to make them responsible. Why are they not responsible when they walk out that door? Why are they responsible and you’re not?”

Sequel officials said 54 youth are served at the Madison Three Springs location at the current time.

“I think maybe this is a wakeup call for you guys. I’m looking at what’s going on here tonight and it’s really, I just didn’t see the conversation going this way,” admitted Gerald Clark. “What I’m not hearing is that these kids are people. They’re not numbers.”

The council excused themselves for an executive session that lasted more than an hour and a half before coming back with the decision to renew the license, with safety conditions.

Will Three Springs stay in Madison?

While there is no stipulation to relocate Three Springs in the business license that is now renewed, Mayor Finley said his personal opinion is that the business needs to go somewhere else.

“I think, in this case, where they are now is in the middle of neighborhoods. There has to be a better place,” he said. “I’ve talked with them about that multiple times. I hope they listen. It’s their responsibility to do that, not our responsibility as a city to make them leave.”

Sequel attorneys have said that Three Springs cannot just move buildings because there are specific elements of the current facility’s design that apply to what they do. It would be difficult and costly to change locations, he stated.

After the meeting, WHNT News 19 was unable to catch up with Three Springs/Sequel leaders or the attorney who was present at the meeting.