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News / Clark County News

Clark County Council OKs creation of department to manage jail

Sheriff candidates: Councilors made decision without enough input

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 21, 2022, 5:20pm

Despite requests from the public, including Clark County sheriff candidates Rey Reynolds and John Horch, to postpone its decision, the Clark County Council on Tuesday unanimously approved creating a new Jail Services department that will take over management of the county jail.

County Manager Kathleen Otto said this is only the first step in a lengthy process. A timeline for the transition has yet to be created but should be made available in the coming weeks.

“We all know the jail has had numerous issues. However, it seems with 50 days to go until the election, with three new councilors coming in and a new sheriff, that this issue should be discussed further,” Horch told the council.

With the proposal to transfer management of the jail from the sheriff to a Jail Services department brought forward last week, Horch said stakeholders haven’t had time to consider all the issues.

Reynolds also voiced his objections to the management change and asked the council to wait until after the November general election.

“I’m completely against this jail takeover at this time,” he told the council.

Reynolds said there are well-known, major issues at the jail but said “this is not the answer” to those problems.

“This will diminish the capacity of our law enforcement, which is already abysmal. If you vote to take away the jail from the sheriff, it will take away from the voice of the people who elect the sheriff to run law enforcement and the jail in the county,” Reynolds said.

One lingering question is why the management change was proposed last week. When asked, Otto said in an email sent Monday that there have been several conversations over the years about a transition, but she didn’t explain further.

“This transition will allow countywide resource allocations and partnerships; therefore, the sheriff can focus specifically on law enforcement in our community,” Otto told the council. “This model has been proven successful with other large jurisdictions within the state, including Spokane, King County and SCORE (South Correctional Entity), which provides jail services to six cities just south of Seattle.”

Otto said another benefit would be the creation of an advisory board that includes representatives from law enforcement, other jurisdictions and mental health providers.

Several individuals commenting during Tuesday’s meeting raised concerns about the county privatizing management of the jail and whether the change was being made to generate revenue for the county.

“No employee will be displaced as a result of this potential transition. It is not being recommended to privatize the jail,” Otto said at the meeting.

“No one has mentioned the word ‘privatization’ until tonight. I don’t know where that came from,” Councilor Gary Medvigy said. “I assure all in the room, especially those who are working in corrections, we’re looking at solutions and models of other counties.”

Medvigy said the council wants to have the safest and best possible working environment that also benefits inmates.

In an interview Tuesday, Horch said he was still waiting to see details for the transition and had many questions, but his main concern is the impact the move would have on sheriff’s office employees.

“I want to make sure no current sheriff’s office employees lost their jobs, and there are safe working conditions for the people who work here and also for the inmates,” Horch said. “Is this best for the public?”

If elected, Horch said, he would work with the county council and manager to ensure that the change in management is done effectively and safely. He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the transition take up to a year to complete.

In addition to all the activities related to housing inmates, such as providing meals and medical care, jail staff have to coordinate transfers to and from other jurisdictions, transfer inmates to the courthouse for hearings and trials, coordinate with federal authorities, and more. Horch said ensuring that those activities continue to be done correctly will require significant coordination.

“There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s not just putting a new patch on. There are so many different areas,” Horch said.

Reynolds did not respond to requests for comment.

Councilor Richard Rylander said that while it might appear to the public the transition has been rushed and was only recently brought forward, that is not the case.

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“My perception is there has been investigative work — work in the background prior to my joining the council,” he said. “There’s been effort there, and it’s not just we suddenly have to do something today. It’s been coming.”

No timeline yet

The next step for the county, according to Otto, will be to develop a transition plan and timeline.

“If approved tonight, we will start that conversation tomorrow and start bringing people to the table. We have not developed a timeline because we didn’t want to put the cart before the horse before we had this conversation,” Otto said.

She said Spokane’s transition took about eight months to finish, although other counties have completed it sooner.

“I don’t want to put a specific time on this, because we want to get it right. We want to ensure continuity of service; we want to make sure our employees there are heard, that the sheriff is at the table, that human resources is there, the public is there,” she said.

Otto said updates would be provided at council meetings as the transition progresses.

A recording of the meeting is available on the county website at https://clark.wa.gov/councilors/clark-county-council-meetings.