County begins process to transition management of jail from Sheriff’s Office to County Manager’s Office

County Council members voted unanimously to create a new government agency with little input from the public.
File photo

County Council members voted unanimously to create a new government agency with little input from the public

Leah Anaya
For Clark County Today

At Tuesday’s (Sept. 20) Clark County Council meeting, the councilors unanimously voted to create a new government agency with little input from the public on the matter. The issue became public on Sept. 15 when OPB published an article about it, speaking with current Sheriff Chuck Atkins, who is not seeking reelection in November. 

Resolution 2022-09-09 seeks to create a county department to run Jail Services independently of the Clark County Sheriff. Overseeing the department would be a civilian employee who reports to the county manager, who is currently Kathleen Otto. 

Both candidates seeking to take Atkins’ position, Chief Criminal Deputy John Horch and Police Corporal Rey Reynolds, attended the meeting and spoke against the resolution, along with a handful of others plus several online comments against it. Most comments asked for the council to delay the vote until after the upcoming election or at least until the public has had more of an opportunity to offer comment. 

County Council members voted unanimously to create a new government agency with little input from the public.
File photo

While District 4 Councilor Gary Medvigy said the timing of the resolution was “unfortunate,” the fact that there would be new leadership within the next few months did not deter his vote. The councilors comments made it clear that their decision was made before the meeting even started.  

While several councilors claimed that this potential solution to jail issues has been discussed in some iteration for “years,” the OPB article was the first time the information was released to the public. The councilors, as well as Otto, also stated that they’d included Atkins in many of the discussions. However, Atkins himself told OPB that he was just informed of the resolution the day the article was written.  

District 1 County Councilor Temple Lentz apparently misquoted Atkins from that same OPB article during her comment, saying that Atkins said the new Jail Services division “should be better for staff and inmates.” What Atkins actually said was, “The council is looking at taking corrections and making it a countywide program. The reality is, if it makes the corrections branch better, it puts it under their control…and it’s safer for the employees and inmates, I’m all for it.” 

Atkins, as mentioned above, is not running for reelection. He has been widely absent from the public eye in the past year, often deferring to Undersheriff John Chapman or Horch to offer statements when asked by the media. In his own words, he found out about the change the same day the article was written, and therefore can have very little information with which to form an opinion. Hence his use of the word “if.” 

Otto said that this vote was “just one step” towards the move, where they can begin having the conversation, and that the actual plan can take anywhere from several months to eight months, which is how long it took Spokane County when they made the same switch. While the conversation will now begin, it will begin without a vote or a say from the public. 

Attendees asked for budgetary information to be released to the public prior to the vote, which was denied. Others asked for more information on the resolution, which, as written, appears to largely be lacking in information (including a completely blank budget item section), which was also denied. 

Several speakers also expressed concern that the jail could potentially be privatized, which Medvigy mocked. “I don’t know where that came from,” he laughed. He went on to say that the County Council did not have any plans to privatize the running of the jail, and then, in the same breath, he said he couldn’t speak for future councils. 

“That’s the point, though!” said one of the meeting’s citizen speakers, Sarah Akey, who is also a precinct committee officer for the Republican Party. “You can’t speak for future councils, and Otto said herself, this is a first step. This is a first step towards the public’s voices being silenced on yet another matter.” 

Medvigy spoke about the need for resources in the jail for mental health. “Of course we need those resources,” said meeting attendee who did not speak publicly, Cemal Richards. Richards is also a precinct committee officer with the Republican Party. “But there are only 49 days until the next election – there will be a new sheriff and three new county councilors soon enough, so why now? I have heard both candidates speak, and there are plans for the ‘major change’ Medvigy said is needed at the jail, so why not let the new leadership fix it? Why does Otto want it so badly without public input?” 

According to Lentz, the decision was made now because of the poor state of the jail, as well as several problems with Human Resources and Labor and Industry claims (which are worker’s comp claims in Washington state). “Public safety starts in the jail,” Medvigy posited.  

“Public safety starts with our deputies,” Akey stated. “This isn’t about their caring hearts for the jailers – this is about them getting more power and making decisions that will be even more detrimental to staffing. All without having to answer to the voters because they rushed a vote. This is unacceptable.” 

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