Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Thursday, Oct. 26 @ 11:12 a.m. / Infrastructure, Jail, Local Government

Del Norte Supervisors Consider Ad-Hoc Group to Formulate 'Strategy' For The Sheriff's Office; Howard Argues For Open Deliberations

With a $9-plus million rehab needed, the jail is one aspect of the sheriff's office a proposed working group would address. | File photo: Jessica C. Andrews

Stating that the public deserves to see how the sausage gets made, especially after approving Measure R, Chris Howard argued for an open process when it comes to deciding the sheriff office’s future.

The District 3 supervisor pointed out on Tuesday that since county voters approved a tax measure that’s supposed to pay for public safety, they should see how the Board allocates those moneys.

Sheriff Garrett Scott is asking the Board of Supervisors to allow two of its members — Valerie Starkey and former sheriff Dean Wilson — to serve on an ad-hoc committee to help “develop a county strategy” within his department.

County supervisors decided to table the issue, though not before debating whether a smaller group could better flesh out issues like recruitment and retention and rehabilitation at the Del Norte County Jail.

“I understand the importance of committees sometimes in not bogging down our meetings,” Howard said. “But in this case public safety, in particular with the sheriff’s department, I think is important enough, and the community is invested enough through our tax dollars, that this should be seen in the open.

Scott, who had been busy organizing Deanna Esmaeel’s memorial service Tuesday, told the Wild Rivers Outpost that he agreed with Howard. But, he said, Brown Act constraints makes it difficult for him to have those discussions with all five supervisors at once.

Between staffing shortages, an impending $9 million jail rehabilitation project and the need to find a new home for Del Norte Search & Rescue, Scott said he wants the Board’s input.

“There are solutions that need to be discussed and when we put our heads together, we can take that to all five Board members and see what we think,” Scott said Wednesday. “What I feel really good about is, from what I heard different Board members say — and there were different opinions — but what I liked about it is they all wanted to be involved. As a sheriff, that’s what you want.”

Saying he’s “probably the most transparent person there is,” Scott said he answers questions at town hall meetings and has a citizens advisory committee. An ad-hoc group with two county supervisors could help him address challenges that aren’t unique to Del Norte County.

Those include competing with larger police departments and sheriff’s offices that can offer a higher wage — Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties are grappling with this too, Scott said.

According to Scott, the sheriff’s office is down 11 deputies, though he does plan on sending a few local recruits to the police academy.
The Del Norte Search & Rescue building is slated to be demolished, which means that branch of the sheriff’s office will have to find a new home, Scott said.

And then there’s the jail, which has 160 beds.

“The public already knows that the jail was built in 1964 and it’s run down,” the sheriff said. “And then you have the other side of the jail, which is a bit newer -- it (was built in) 1984. It all needs rehab.”

According to Scott, originally the thinking was that the entire building needed to be replaced. That’d cost more than $35 million, he said.

After Del Norte County received $3.1 million in Community Funded Project dollars thanks to the late U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, an engineering company did an analysis of the building and found the structural integrity is still good, Scott said.

According to Scott, the $3.1 million will help rehabilitate the older section of the jail as well as one of its medical rooms and provide some office space.

“We need to come up with more money to continue the rehabilitation,” he said. “Those are bigger picture things that obviously would always go to the Board and be seen in public. It’s also a positive improvement that we want the public to know about.”

Though the Board of Supervisors sets his budget, Scott said as an elected official in his own right the decisions he makes and the direction his department takes falls largely on his shoulders. It’s for the sheriff to reach out to the Board of Supervisors and ask them to be involved, he said.

Wilson, who was sheriff from 2003 to 2014, pointed that out to his colleagues on Tuesday. Many of the challenges the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office faces are “purely internal,” Wilson said.

“Much of what needs to be addressed at the sheriff’s department truly will have nothing to do with the Board nor will any Board action be required,” he said. “He reached out to us (for) help.”

Starkey asked Howard what he’d like to see from the sheriff — if he wanted a workshop or a presentation. She said she, Wilson and Scott were hoping to narrow down their ideas before coming to the entire Board of Supervisors.

Howard said he didn’t want it narrowed down.

“I want to hear what you guys are hearing from Sheriff Scott,” Howard said. “If we’re going to be investing dollars we potentially don’t have out of the general fund, I would like all the options weighed out here in front of us.”

Board Chairman Darrin Short said that while he also wants to hear from Scott about forming a working group to address needs at the sheriff’s office, ad-hoc committees can accomplish a lot. He currently sits on the homelessness ad-hoc committee, which, he said, has been seeing some successes.

A small group can reach out to other law enforcement agencies, look at alternate building locations and funding options for the jail rehab project and bring those ideas back before the Board to discuss further options.

“The homeless ad-hoc is a big group and we have splintered out into specialist kinds of subgroups that I think are very effective,” Short said.


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