Saturday, December 3, 2022
Dec. 3, 2022

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Donnelly: County jail decision is irresponsible


On Sept. 20, the Clark County Council and county manager, with minimal notice to the public or stakeholders, abruptly removed management of its troubled jail from the sheriff’s office. Less than a week later, county staff, without a competitive and transparent hiring process, installed former sheriff candidate David Shook as manager of a new Jail Services department.

Chief Corrections Deputy Phil Sample was not informed of the decision to replace him with Shook until the last minute, after many other jail staff had been notified. He calls this treatment “humiliating.”

The chain of events, lacking respect for the public, demonstrates irresponsibility on the part of County Manager Kathleen Otto and of all the council members. It does not inspire public confidence in the new jail team.

Likely influencing the timing of these decisions, lively election contests to be decided in weeks are drawing supporters for council and sheriff. Those offices involve the very public servants most directly involved in public safety and the jail. The supporters pounding in the yard signs want their candidates to be in the decision process, not just in the subsequent transition.

Home-style wisdom would tell the county that the fact that one can do something does not mean one should do it. This is one of those times.

The county has the legal authority to manage and staff its jail. The radical steps they took, including a new advisory committee, may ultimately be the best decision. Similarly, Dave Shook may emerge as the ideal hire. We don’t know. The timing is suspect, with a new sheriff and council soon to be sworn in.

At the Sept. 20 council meeting, the new department was approved through a brief resolution presented cursorily as a consent agenda item. The supporting staff report claimed improbably that there were “no council policy implications” and “no administrative policy implications.” Addressing “community outreach,” it promised that “if approved additional information will be forthcoming in the jail transition plan.” That is, after the fact.

In a Sept. 15 OPB news report (“Clark County sheriff says county angling to run jail,”), Sheriff Chuck Atkins admitted he was “all for it” but not sure why the action was being taken.

On Sept. 20, in public comments, sheriff candidate John Horch called for delaying the decision, observing that stakeholders had not been consulted, nor had budget impacts been assessed. Opponent Rey Reynolds acknowledged the long-standing problems at the jail but stated he was “completely against” the move until the “voice of the people” could be heard. Other public commenters overwhelmingly agreed.

Otto and Deputy Manager Amber Emery, who will supervise the new department, responded that a separate jail department had been discussed “on and off for years.” They promised they would “start bringing people together,” in an effort to “get it right.” They promised the new sheriff would be “at the table.” Sources tell me they already knew they were going to appoint Shook.

Prior to the vote to approve the new department, council members were uncharacteristically unanimous in accepting that the changes would improve transparency and accountability. Council members asked softball questions, such as “am I correct in thinking this will bring a new level of accountability?” (Answer: yes).

It was a puzzling and ultimately shameful demonstration of group think.

Back on the campaign trail, council candidates for Districts 1, 2, and 5 have been virtually unanimous in opposing or questioning the council’s pre-election fait accompli. Michelle Belkot (District 2) expressed “shock and dismay” and wrote that “this decision was made without workshops, open hearings, or consulting stakeholders.” She criticized the finality of these decisions, saying they preempted future council action.

At a Sept. 26 forum, Glen Yung (District 1) observed that with the Shook appointment, no “normal, typical process was followed.” Opponent Hector Hinojosa stated that many county employees were “left out … disrespected,” and that the manner in which the decision was made generated “distrust.” Hinojosa called for an investigation into how the decision came about.

In January, the council, with three new members, must do what it can to diminish the untimely distrust between law enforcement and the county, and to hold irresponsible county employees accountable.

Progress toward restoring public safety is at stake.