- Nick Budnick
- Portland Tribune - News
BACK STORY • Wheeler, Giusto grapple over future of jails
Sporting a nice tie and rain-dampened suit, Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler last week waited for an elevator to head upstairs in the Multnomah County Detention Center - the 10-story downtown lockup perched at the base of the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge.
'If you get any weird looks, don't blame me,' joked his uniformed guide, deputy Travis Gullberg. 'Any hand gestures - not my fault.'
If it feels like Wheeler is entering enemy territory, it's because the county's jails are managed by the county's sheriff, Bernie Giusto.
Wheeler, saying he would do a better job, now wants to take them over - and potentially even make the sheriff, now an independently elected official, his employee.
So divisive is the idea that the two men are enlisting the help of an 'informed facilitator' to help them seek compromise in the coming month.
Meanwhile, the idea of putting a jail takeover measure before voters in May continues to gather momentum at the Board of County Commissioners.
At stake is control of an agency with significant impact on the public's safety. The Multnomah County sheriff's office consumes roughly $100 million annually to process some 40,000 inmates a year while also employing nearly 40 deputies to patrol outlying parts of the county.
Wheeler said the current system, in which the elected county commissioners approve the budget and another elected official spends it, is inherently flawed.
'The public doesn't know who to hold accountable. Is it the sheriff? Is it the county?' he asked. 'The taxpayers have the right to know that we're spending every public safety dollar as wisely as we can.'
Giusto, however, called Wheeler's proposals 'a simplistic answer to a very complex problem,' and says the jail takeover plan essentially would make Wheeler the sheriff.
'I'm not sure if voters want the county chair to be sheriff,' Giusto said.
The debate will set the slate for what could be two chances for voters to weigh in on the county's criminal justice system in the coming year.
Wheeler and members of the county board could put their jail takeover plan on the ballot in May. They hope to follow that in November with a public safety levy of as much as $30 million a year.
Like Wheeler, Commissioner Lisa Naito views the two proposals as a tandem. She said changes in jail oversight need to be made so that in November, 'people see that there will be progress made on the efficiency side.'
Officials have different styles
Personality-wise, it's easy to imagine a high school classroom in which Wheeler is the brainy and earnest front-row kid, a frequent hand-raiser - while the wisecracking Giusto directs smirks and spitballs toward the back of Wheeler's head.
In his first year in office, Wheeler, who once wrote a book called 'Government That Works,' has attempted to restore some of the accountability measures that were cut by his predecessor, Diane Linn.
Meanwhile, Giusto, in his five years as sheriff, has employed a hands-off management style he has called 'Bernie 101.'
Because he cares for his employees to a fault, current and former employees say, he frequently sides with his troops to overrule his own managers' efforts to make the agency work better.
Giusto's management style has been the subject of a cascading series of critical reports by successive county corrections grand juries, as well as by consultants, the Multnomah County district attorney's office and the county's elected auditor.
Meanwhile, some of Giusto's other behavior has spawned a criminal official-misconduct investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice, and fueled an ongoing state moral fitness probe that could strip him of his badge.
Giusto pointed out that many of the jail's problems - including one of the most generous union contracts in the country and some of the most expensive jail beds in the West - are those that he has inherited or were contributed to by the county commissioners.
'The idea that someone can come in and work some magic and I-don't-know-what, I am totally lost about,' he said.
But Wheeler said that Giusto's response to the problems has been too little, too late: For instance, despite years of criticisms, the sheriff only recently set up a unit to monitor sick-time abuse.
Wheeler and his top aide, Bill Farver, say that changing jail management is important not just to improve efficiency, but as a necessary prelude to asking voters in November for more money to fund criminal justice and related social services.
As Farver put it, 'How can you pursue a public safety levy when all the press is about the uncontrolled costs?'
As currently conceived by Wheeler and other county officials, the public safety levy would restore many of the programs that were set up when the county was flush with state and federal cash in the mid-to-late '90s, only to be cut in recent years.
It would enhance mental health facilities and drug and alcohol treatment programs under the county Department of Community Justice, as well as programs to reintegrate inmates upon their release.
'A terrible idea'
If the sheriff's office, or a large part of it, were placed under the county commissioners, it would not be the first time. Multnomah County sheriffs were appointed from 1967 until 1982.
Fred Pearce spent four months as the county's last appointed sheriff, before being elected later in 1982. He says the experiment fell victim to years of headlines about poor management, inmate escapes and other scandals, which he attributed to the highly politicized environment of the county board.
'I was the seventh appointed sheriff in 10 years,' he said. 'I would definitely oppose going back to having an appointed sheriff.'
He is echoed by Giusto's predecessor, Dan Noelle. Not only is Noelle no friend of Giusto, he also was in many ways the current sheriff's antithesis: elected without union backing, a hands-on manager and tough disciplinarian, and adept in public relations.
'I think it's a terrible idea,' Noelle said of Wheeler's proposal to take over the jails. The former sheriff recalls asking the county commissioners repeatedly for their input on the direction of his agency -but the only interest they had, he said, was in siphoning money from law enforcement, often to pay for their own pet projects.
'While I understand that Ted Wheeler is doing what he thinks is the right thing, it's my feeling that (his ideas) would take a problem and turn it into a tragedy,' Noelle said.
He noted that the same county corrections grand jury reports that have blasted Giusto also frequently have blasted county commissioners' inattentiveness, as well as poor management at the agencies they oversee.
For instance, the 2006 grand jury took a look at the pretrial monitoring of felons, a function that the county commissioners had taken away from Giusto's jails and given to their own Department of Community Justice.
The grand jury found needless delays and lack of oversight, creating 'a substantial risk to the community.'
Still other current and former employees, including Lea Lakeside-Scott, a former Department of Community Justice computer technician, point to the agency's use of approximately $1 million in voter-approved bond money to set up an offender information network that they say unnecessarily mirrored an already-existing state system - and which effectively was stowed on the shelf once completed.
Others, including Noelle, point to DCJ's setting up of the Interchange treatment center in 1999, only to be shut down after an analyst's findings that it cost three times what equivalent nonprofits do - and was no more effective.
Wheeler said that most of these incidents took place before he took office, and he is not familiar with them. But he said such stories are inevitable in a government that employs 5,000 employees with a budget of more than $1 billion.
'There is no question that within this government there have been, and probably will continue to be, spectacular and notable blunders. I don't deny that,' Wheeler said.
But he said the county has steadily improved its oversight, and still would do a better job of running the jails.
'I'm open to other people putting forward their best ideas,' he said. 'But what I will not accept is the system as it is now, because it's clearly broken.'
Some dispute diagnosis
While most of them agree the system is broken, some county insiders have other views.
Jim Carlson, for instance, worked for years in the county performance and evaluation unit dedicated to making county government work better -employing much the same philosophy that Wheeler does.
Time and time again, he said, he found his research stifled or buried by county administrators and commissioners, because 'there were some political choices to be made that they did not want to make,' he said.
For instance, documents and e-mails show that in 2001, top administrators canceled Carlson's plans to inform county commissioners of his findings on county spending. Among them was that the sheriff's office consumed only 14 percent of county spending, not the huge chunk that the county's publicly released budget said it did.
He also was unsuccessful in his attempts to make the system more actively managed using the county's already-paid for, top-flight criminal-justice data system.
This, he said, would lead to more intelligent decisions about who is arrested, booked into jail and for how long - as well as what treatment and supervision they receive upon release.
He believes the caliber of most county management personnel is no better than at the sheriff's office. However, he still favors putting the sheriff's office under the same management at the county board - as long as the emphasis is on making the entire county system work together more cohesively and intelligently.
Whereas the Department of Community Justice gathers research nationally on the best way to handle criminal offenders, Carlson said, the sheriff's office 'is in an old silo mentality, 'we hold them, and someone else tells us when to let them go.' '
He also said that if the system were actively managed under the coordinated system he tried to set up, it wouldn't need a levy.
District Attorney Mike Schrunk thinks Carlson has a point.
'Carlson's right, you could do a lot more,' the prosecutor said, adding that concrete progress needs to be part of any solution. 'He's saying make smarter decisions before you ask for more money. That makes sense to me.'
Judge Michael Marcus said that it's 'hard to tell' who would do a better job of running the jails: 'Anyone can do a good or a bad job of that. To (make the question) about whoever happens to be in office is probably a mistake.'
As an example of the uncertainty involved in changing who's in charge, he cited the shift of the jail pretrial monitoring unit from Giusto to the county Department of Community Justice in 2005.
Today, though the idea looked great on paper, DCJ still does its job far slower than sheriff's personnel once did.
'That's been surprising and frustrating to (judges),' he said.
Marcus, in turn, is echoed by the county's former elected auditor, Suzanne Flynn. 'I just think there are pros and cons on both sides,' she said. Putting jails under the county commissioners either 'could or could not work,' she added, saying 'it just depends on the people' running things.
Union opposed to change
Wheeler is planning on placing a jail takeover plan on the May primary election ballot. He's considering two proposals.
One would take the jails away from Giusto, leaving the sheriff's office just 15 percent of its current size. The other would make Giusto's position appointed by the county board.
Both ideas likely would require changes to state law as well as the county charter, which would require voter approval.
The outcome of a ballot fight in May would seem certain if it just pitted Wheeler, the good-government idealist, against Giusto, who in effect has become the swaggering bad boy of local law enforcement.
But it wouldn't.
If the county board puts that charter change on the ballot, the Multnomah County Corrections Officers Association is prepared to fund an opposition campaign, according to the union's vice president, Darcy Bjork, who added, 'We are completely opposed to it.'
That push also will face criticism not just from Giusto but from his more well-regarded predecessor, Noelle, and probably from the influential Schrunk as well. Schrunk does not support an appointed sheriff, saying the agency needs an elected, 'independent voice.'
This is why Schrunk and others have been steering Wheeler and Giusto toward a compromise, with shared oversight of the jails.
Giusto says he is open to relinquishing control of his budget, as well as policymaking, but he thinks an elected sheriff should remain in charge of the day-to-day operations.
Wheeler does not agree, but is hopeful they come to a compromise with the help of the soon-to-be-hired facilitator.
'I'm willing to stay at that table as long as the sheriff is willing to stay,' he said.
Report makes argument for public safety levy
A report released last week did not explicitly focus on the need for a November public safety levy, but it clearly is intended to make the case for it, arguing that the county's criminal justice and social service system have become so frayed due to budget cuts that after years of dropping, crime rates are poised to go up again.
The 37-page, Jan. 2 Multnomah County Public Safety Planning Report argues for restoration of a 'continuum' of services to 'protect people and prevent crime through a coordinated system that is just and accountable to all.'
It was prepared by the Criminal Justice Institute, a small nonprofit with headquarters in Boston, based on interviews with more than 100 regional officials, government employees and advocates.
CJI is headed by Elyse Clawson, former chief of Multnomah County's Department of Community Justice. The report was commissioned by Chairman Ted Wheeler at a cost of $150,000. He cited it last week as showing the need for a public safety levy.
Though county officials are reluctant to put a price tag on the proposal, some observers privately estimated it could run $25 million to $30 million a year.
The document cites years of budget cuts as well as a projected need for $18 million more in the next fiscal year.
It says that inmates who would be more inexpensively dealt with by drug and alcohol treatment or mental health services are instead clogging up the system and then are being released without the treatment necessary to keep them from reoffending.
'Judges feel that their only sentencing options are 'jail or no jail,' ' the report says. 'Offenders sit in expensive jail beds while they wait for less expensive and more appropriate residential treatment beds.
'Individuals with mental illness are jailed instead of treated and then set free without critical release planning. These practices represent neither wise use of public resources, nor do they contribute to community safety.'
Among other things, proposals include:
• Better mental health facilities to provide mentally ill offenders with supervision and treatment rather than incarceration.
• Restoring funding to probation supervision of misdemeanor cases such as property crimes and DUII.
• Establishing supervised transitional housing for inmates being released back into society, including the mentally ill as well as those with history of violence and sex crimes.
• Setting up more residential beds for offenders receiving treatment for substance abuse, as well as 150 beds at Wapato jail for in-jail drug and alcohol treatment.
- Nick Budnick