Crime

Fayette corrections officers oppose jail being run by the sheriff, survey says

Fayette Co. Sheriff Kathy Witt spoke during a stalking awareness rally held in the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, January, 05, 2010. A group of advocates, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, who would like to see more changes to the stateÕs domestic violence laws, held the rally to broaden public awareness of stalking as a crime. The group also pledged support for a bill sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, named after Amanda Ross, who was allegedly killed by her former fiance in September outside of her Lexington home. The bill would give judges the option of ordering a global positioning system or GPS tracking device for the most dangerous people accused of stalking or trying to harm a loved onePhoto 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. A group of advocates, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, who would like to see more changes to the stateÕs domestic violence laws, held the rally to broaden public awareness of stalking as a crime. The group also pledged support for a bill sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, named after Amanda Ross, who was allegedly killed by her former fiance in September outside of her Lexington home. The bill would give judges the option of ordering a global positioning system or GPS tracking device for the most dangerous people accused of stalking or trying to harm a loved onePhoto by Charles Bertram | Staff

The majority of corrections officers who participated in a recent survey oppose the idea of the detention center being run by Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt.

Kevin Johnson, president of Town Fraternal Order of Police Town Branch Lodge #83, said union members are concerned that their collective bargaining contract with the Urban County Government probably would be annulled if Witt was put in charge and corrections officers became employees of the sheriff's office. The office, which is required by the state Constitution, is not part of Lexington's merged city-county government.

"It's definitely a concern to us," said Johnson.

As interim jail director Ray Sabbatine nears the end of his tenure, the Urban County Council has renewed its focus on who should run the jail, which is funded and operated by the city. Suggestions have included the sheriff's office, an appointed director, an elected jailer or a private third party.

At a meeting of the council's Public Safety Committee last week, it became clear that the most viable options were to hire a director or appoint the sheriff. Officials have said the Urban County Government could save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year if Witt took the helm, but it would result in less city control of the facility.

Witt, who began her career as a corrections officer, said she understood the concerns of detention center employees.

"With possible change, there comes a level of fear," she said.

The online survey was created and sponsored by the union, which represents 233 corrections officers and sergeants. About 40 percent of union members completed the survey, lodge treasurer Shaun Hubbard said.

According to the survey, 63 percent answered "no" when asked "Do you support the Fayette County sheriff running the jail?" By comparison, 28 percent said they would consider it, and 9 percent voted "yes," the release said.

The survey found workers were concerned because "jail officers know sheriff's deputies who are not happy at the sheriff's office" and because of "the lack of any specific plans or answers from the sheriff to achieve her goals, and the apprehension about a job which is dependent upon a successful election cycle," the release said.

Johnson, president of the lodge, said officers were most concerned that they would become "at-will employees" of the sheriff's office and that collective bargaining would be scrapped.

However, Witt pointed out that, as sheriff's employees, corrections officers would have a clearer career path, which would reduce the jail's high turnover rates. Corrections officers would be protected from wrongful termination or discipline under a state law commonly called the Police Officers' Bill of Rights.

Johnson said the union also worried that the possibility of transferring to non-city management could result in fewer and lower quality applicants for the position of jail director.

"There's no guarantee (the director's) job will be there down the road," he said.

Corrections officers' concerns and the union's status are among a "vast range of questions" that officials will have to answer before the jail could merge with the sheriff's office, said Chris Frost, chairman of a task force appointed by Mayor Jim Gray to research the issue.

"I think that's just another factor to go into the mix of whether this is a good idea from a government perspective," said Frost, a law professor at the University of Kentucky.

Witt and council members have said jails are run by sheriff's offices in most states, but it would be a first in Kentucky.

Urban County Councilman George Myers, who has spoken in favor of the plan, said employees probably were concerned that they would be fired and that new workers would be hired to take their places if collective bargaining was lost. That concern is unfounded, he said.

Witt "has said she has no intention of going in and cleaning house," Myers said. "She wants to work with everybody that's there and provide opportunities for everybody that's there."

Myers said the potential cost savings was too great to ignore, and the Urban County Government should consider putting the jail under the purview of the sheriff.

"I'm not suggesting we don't take into consideration employee concerns," he said. "However, there are laws in place to make sure employees aren't mistreated, and that's what we have to remember throughout this process."

Witt's offer to run the jail has been on the table since at least 2007, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Leader. She has outlined hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential savings and has presented plans to reduce recidivism and improve service at the facility.

For example, the sheriff's office maintains private liability insurance. The Urban County Government has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits filed against the jail. Similar lawsuits could be settled for a fraction of that cost under the sheriff's office management, with the bulk paid by insurance companies. Witt has said the city also would save more than $100,000 a year on a director's salary. And the sheriff's office could earn state reimbursements for the salaries of some officers, which the local government cannot.

However, Frost said more research was needed to determine how much of those savings actually could materialize, as well as what legal and management problems the merger might pose.

The Urban County Government still would be responsible for the facility, but the management would be handled by the sheriff's office, which raises questions about who is liable in lawsuits and "about the wisdom of separating accountability and authority."

"It may be that the rationale is that 'if it's somewhere else, we don't have to worry about it,'" Frost said. "I'm concerned that that's not correct."

The task force has requested information from the city, the detention center and the sheriff's office to begin its research. The issue will be discussed again at a Public Safety Committee meeting in March.

Meanwhile, the sheriff's offer stands.

"At the end of the day, it's not up to us," Witt said. "We're just offering resources. We have to have an opportunity to make a difference."

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