Clash over role of future Monroe County jail transition director, possible post-holiday resolution

At their regular Wednesday morning meeting, Monroe County commissioners approved two additional studies of the Thomson PUD property, which is currently being considered as a potential new jail site.

A Phase 2 environmental study, as well as a wetlands delineation, are both to be done by VET Environmental Engineering, for a total of about $20,000.

Even if commissioners have stressed that no decision on a future new jail site has been made, those two studies mark a bit of progress towards the eventual construction of a new jail to replace the facility at 7th Street and College Avenue.  The current jail has been analyzed by a consultant as failing to provide constitutional levels of care.

Not getting any airtime at the commissioners meeting on Wednesday was significant discord that has emerged between the sheriff’s office and the commissioners—about filling a position to direct the transition to a new jail facility.

But that discord looks like it could be on a schedule for some kind of resolution, starting with a joint meeting of the county commissioners and the county council on Monday, Nov. 27.

At the county council’s Tuesday night meeting, council president Kate Wiltz  looked to the end of the month as a timeframe for resolving the sore points.

As a chance to work through some concerns and possibly get a transition director’s contract approved, Wiltz pointed to already scheduled meetings on three successive days—Nov. 27 (joint), Nov. 28 (county council), and Nov. 29 (county commissioners).

The new controversy was aired out at the county council’s regular meeting, which took place on Tuesday night.

Part of the friction is connected to the source of funding for the role of a transition director. Will it be ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money or local funds?

But the substance of the disagreement concerns two questions: (1) Should the transition director be full-time or part-time? And (2) Should the person who fills the role should be drawn from current staff in the sheriff’s office?

The sheriff’s perspective is that the job should be full-time and that it should be a contracted position, not drawing on the jail staff. The sheriff and chief deputy have, up to now, believed that they, the county commissioners, and the county council were all in agreement about that perspective. That was based on an Oct. 3 meeting of the council’s personnel administration committee.

At Tuesday’s county council meeting, Monroe County sheriff Ruben Marté and chief deputy Phil Parker gave councilors their take on a contentious meeting that took place earlier in the day. The meeting took place on the Microsoft Teams platform.

During that meeting, Marté and Parker’s understanding—that the transition director would be a full-time, contractual position—appears to have been questioned by commissioner Penny Githens.

But by Wednesday morning, some of the dust might have started to settle. Githens told The B Square that she had simply been advocating for what she understood to be the practice recommended by the National institute of Corrections for managing a jail transition—that a current member of the sheriff’s office staff should direct it.

Based on the response from Marté and Parker, Githens said “That’s not a hill I’m going to die on.” She added, “If this is absolutely what we have to have, to make it go forward, that’s fine.”

Commissioner Lee Jones added that she wants to see the process for addressing the situation with the jail move forward. Commissioner Julie Thomas was absent.

In his remarks to the county council, which is the county’s fiscal body, Parker acknowledged that Scott Carnegie, with DLZ, the county’s selected design-build firm, had said that ideally it would be someone from the sheriff’s office to direct the transition team.

That appears to be the same recommendation given by Mark Martin from the National Institute of Corrections, who had attended the contentious meeting earlier on Tuesday.

Parker said that the sheriff’s office does not currently have anyone who could act in the role of transition director. Parker described jail commander Kyle Gibbons and assistant commander Matt Demmings as capable, but said they could not take the necessary time away from their duties running the current facility, to direct the transition.

Parker put it like this: “We cannot sacrifice the safety and security of that facility for this position. There’s people out there that can do this, but it cannot come from the jail staff. It just can’t.”

Parker said the demands on current staff for the planning for the new facility have already started to wear on them. “We still have an agency to run. We have a jail that needs lots of attention.” Parker continued, “We have a jail commander that gives it lots of attention.”

But Parker added, “Every time we are in here talking about this, we’re drawing from that, and it’s starting to be problematic. I’ll just tell you that.”

Attending the meeting earlier in the day on Tuesday (Nov. 14) were: Monroe County sheriff Ruben Marté; chief deputy Phil Parker; jail commander Kyle Gibbons; county council president Kate Wiltz; councilors Cheryl Munson, and Jennifer Crossley; county board of commissioners president Penny Githens, county attorney Molly Turner-King; and Mark Martin from the National Institute of Corrections.

On Tuesday, after Parker had aired out his concerns to the full county council, Wiltz indicated some agreement with Parker’s position: “While it would be ideal if the [transition director] came from the jail staff, but that doesn’t have to be how it is.”

Wiltz also pointed to the fact that county attorney Molly King was working on a contract, and that the draft had not been ready for the meeting earlier in the day. King sent a draft to county councilors around 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

Councilor Marty Hawk boiled down the question to one of funding. If it’s funded out of ARPA money, as the intent up to now has been, then the commissioners would need to sign off on it. But if it’s just local money, then the council could appropriate the money, and the sheriff would be able to sign the contract with the jail transition director, Hawk said.

A court of appeals case from earlier this year  concluded that the sheriff can sign jail-related contracts without approval by the county commissioners, as long as the contracts are related to the sheriff’s statutory take-care duty towards prisoners.

This latest point of friction over the jail transition director is a pretty big bump in what has appeared to be a smooth working relationship between the commissioners and the sheriff over the last several months. That’s after things got off to a rocky start at the beginning of the year.

Access to the council and commissioners meetings that are scheduled for Nov. 27, Nov. 28 and Nov. 29 should be posted on Monroe County’s website calendar.

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