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News / Clark County News

Clark County Council to review proposal to create jail services department

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 19, 2022, 4:56pm

At its meeting Tuesday evening, the Clark County Council will review a proposed resolution to create a new jail services department. The resolution, which was brought to the council by County Manager Kathleen Otto, is the first step toward transitioning management of the Clark County Jail away from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Otto, who recently toured the jail facility, said creating a jail services department isn’t a new idea but one that has been discussed for several years.

“(The) council’s consideration of creating a new department is truly the first step of this conversation. If the new department is approved (Tuesday), that will initiate an intentional conversation on the transition and as that is developed, additional information will be provided,” Otto said in an email Monday.

According to a staff report on the proposed resolution, state law does not mandate the county sheriff manage jail operations. The report notes while state law assigns the responsibility for jail operations to either a department of corrections created by the county or the chief law enforcement officer, it also allows counties to “acquire, build, operate and maintain holding, detention, special detention and correctional facilities … at any place designated by the county legislative authority within the territorial limits of the county.”

Additionally, the county charter gives the county manager power to supervise all administrative departments established by the charter.

Otto said there are benefits to having a jail services department manage the corrections facility instead of the sheriff’s office.

“The county has oversight over countywide services. This transition will allow countywide resource allocation and partnerships; therefore, the sheriff can focus specifically on law enforcement. This model has proven to be successful in other jurisdictions,” Otto said.

If the resolution is passed, Otto said there is much more work to be done before the transition can happen.

“If approved, a transition plan will be developed in partnership with all relevant partners (e.g. human resources, budget, sheriff’s office, employees, guild, legal, pertinent outside entities, etc.),” she said. “This will not happen overnight, and I anticipate the transition will be done over several months.”

The sheriff’s office has been struggling with staffing shortages. In March, Sheriff Chuck Atkins announced the department would no longer respond to lower priority calls, such as misdemeanor property theft, lost and found property, minor traffic or parking complaints, and others. By July, the department had nearly 70 open positions, with most being for corrections staff or deputies.

Atkins, who was unavailable for comment Monday, has previously attributed the staffing shortages to a “perfect storm” of higher pay offered by other law enforcement agencies, calls for police reform and the COVID-19 pandemic. Atkins and the guild representing the deputies have called on the council to provide more funding to address the shortage. While the council did approve funding for hiring bonuses to new officers, Atkins has noted there is still a pay gap for existing deputies.

Changing who manages the jail won’t put current employees at risk of losing their jobs, Otto said.

“No employee will be displaced as a result of this potential transition. If approved, we will work closely and partner with the jail employees and their guild during the transition,” she said.

The county council meeting begins at 6 p.m. in council chambers at the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., in Vancouver. In-person attendance is allowed, or watch live on CVTV.org. For more information or an agenda, go to https://clark.wa.gov/councilors.