City's public safety committee discusses Fayette jail's leadership

Fayette Co. Sheriff Kathy Witt spoke during a stalking awareness rally held in the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, January, 05, 2010. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Fayette Co. Sheriff Kathy Witt spoke during a stalking awareness rally held in the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, January, 05, 2010. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

As Ray Sabbatine nears the end of his tenure as interim director of the detention center, renewed focus has been put on whether Sheriff Kathy Witt should take over the troubled facility.

During a meeting of the Urban County Council's public safety task force Tuesday, Witt outlined several of the benefits the city would reap if she took over the jail's operation, namely cost savings.

The sheriff's office maintains private-liability insurance, she said, but the city is self-insured. Witt said if she had been in charge of the jail, the sheriff's office would have paid a fraction of the more than $3 million the city has paid in jail-related lawsuit settlements in the last five years. For example, the city recently paid a $500,000 settlement that would have cost the sheriff's office $10,000 in insurance premiums, said Councilman George Myers, who supports the merger.

The merger would save the city the more than $150,000 per year for an appointed director, Witt said. It also would provide a better career track for corrections officers.

Dozens of corrections officers quit each year to take jobs with police and sheriff's offices. Those people could be promoted rather than leaving one organization to join another.

"We know ... how much it costs to continue to hire and continue to train folks, and it's killing us," Myers said.

Other council members and city officials were less enthusiastic about giving control of the jail to someone besides a city appointee.

Councilman Doug Martin said merging with the sheriff's office would be equivalent to reinstating elected jailers. The city would not be able to remove sheriffs who weren't doing a good job, he said.

"We have a high degree of confidence in our current sheriff. She is an exceptional person," he said. "My concern is: what happens if the person who succeeds her in office isn't?"

Chris Frost, chairman of a Public Safety Task Force authorized earlier this year by Mayor Jim Gray, said the decision should not be rushed. He said the council would have to discuss issues such as training, employee status, insurance and ownership of equipment. It also was unclear whether the sheriff would recognize the corrections officers' collective bargaining contracts, to which the city is legally bound.

"I think that the amount of information we're going to have to gather to make an informed, intelligent decision on this is staggering," he said.

Officials said repeatedly that jails in most other states are run by county sheriffs, but Sabbatine said jails are moving away from that model. He said the sheriff's employees who end up working in the jails are the ones who get in trouble or have problems working on the streets.

"It creates huge problems for the jails, because now you have a discontented employee," he said.

There also are questions surrounding civil and criminal liability. The sheriff's office would assume liability for employee-related lawsuits, but the city would likely be accountable for property-related lawsuits — such as a slip-and-fall personal injury — because the facility is city-owned.

"It doesn't go away," Councilwoman KC Crosbie said of the city's liability at the jail.

Problems at the jail are numerous, officials have said, including low staffing, mandatory overtime, low morale, high turnover rates and occasional use-of-force violations. Lawsuits are regularly filed by inmates and current and former corrections officers.

Sabbatine was hired in July after former director Ron Bishop retired. His goal was to get a handle on some of those issues by restructuring management and retraining employees. Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason said Sabbatine has made significant strides, but his tenure will end in late March.

Mason said several qualified candidates have applied for the job, but that the possible appointment of the sheriff could alter their plans. A merger also could have an impact on collective bargaining negotiations.

"If there is a necessity for us to go in a different direction, it needs to happen quickly with a unified voice from council," he said.

However, council members said they couldn't make a unified decision without hearing the city's position and reading reports from the mayor's task force. Frost said those reports could be a long time in the making.

Council members ultimately voted to reconvene in March with the task force and stakeholders present.

"If deliberation can be combined with speed, that would be good," councilman Tom Blues said. "But deliberation has to be the predominant value."