The ‘Fresh Start’ Offer

sheriff david morganThe Escambia County Commission will consider an offer this week from Sheriff David Morgan to continue managing the county jail until October 2014. The offer provides the county—which is scheduled to take over the jail by this October—an out, and comes after commissioners recently decided to reopen their search for a permanent county administrator and stipulated that Interim Administrator George Touart would not be allowed into the applicant pool.

“We think that the county is making some right decisions, if you will,” Sheriff Morgan said Tuesday.

Morgan said he felt the additional year would allow the county to focus on securing an administrator without simultaneously tending to the jail transfer. He also said a new administrator might present an opportunity for more fruitful negotiations next year.

“We think it would be a good, fresh start,” the sheriff said.

Morgan described recent negotiations with Touart as ineffective—“there were never really any negotiations on the jail issue”—and said he was not allowed to adequately stake out his position during open commission meetings.

“They sit on the dias and dictate, hurl bombs and insults at people and you’re not allowed to speak,” Morgan said. “You’re cut off or gaveled down.”

Escambia County officials decided to assume responsibility of the jail recently after Morgan requested additional funds to address concerns detailed in a Department of Justice investigation of the facility. Touart told the commission he thought the DOJ concerns could be initially satisfied for $2.6 million—money originally intended for employee raises—significantly less than Morgan’s threshold.

County staff is currently working to take over the jail. No firm numbers have been provided, but Touart has said he hopes to accomplish the jail transfer and still be able to offer some cost of living increases to county employees.

Morgan describes the transfer process as “a train wreck.”

“There’s almost this rejection of what the true cost of the transfer is going to be,” he said.

The sheriff’s recent offer is to continue operating the jail for $2.6 million. He is agreeing to “defer seeking pay parity” for officers (his original budget request addressed holiday and overtime pay concerns) and agreeing not to appeal his budget to the governor’s office.

With the $2.6 million, Morgan said he would hire four or five mental health professionals and 40 correctional officers. The DOJ investigations addressed both inadequacies in mental health service and understaffing issues.

As the county was already discussing, Morgan said the DOJ’s concerns would need to be addressed incrementally.

“That’s the first increment,” the sheriff said of the initial hires. “But, again, that doesn’t make the Department of Justice go away. This process is going to take years. The Department of Justice will easily be with us for the next three to five year. This is not a one-time buy, this is an ongoing process.”

The Escambia County Commission will dig into Morgan’s offer during their regular meeting Thursday. Commissioner Wilson Robertson has said he intends to keep an “open mind,” and Chairman Gene Valentino has declined to discuss the matter until after this week’s meeting. Commissioners Lumon May, Grover Robinson and Steven Barry have yet to reply to the IN’s request for comment.

According to Escambia County Public Information Manager Kathleen Dough-Castro, county staff is “continuing to move forward with plans to transition the jail on October 1.”

The sheriff made his offer via a July 22 letter to all five county commissioners, as well as members of county staff. Though he said he was withholding comment, Chairman Valentino did hint when questioned by the Pensacola News Journal that the sheriff’s offer could face a tough audience.

“We accepted the transition,” he told the daily. “I think we can run the jail better than him.”

Morgan referenced Valentino’s remarks Tuesday, bristling at the notion.

“That statement’s based on what?” the sheriff asked. “I’m seeing this stream of consciousness, this hurling of words at a problem that doesn’t solve a thing.”

Morgan said he hoped the commission was receptive to his offer, and that he was open to heading back to the negotiating table following the county’s search for a new administrator.

“We’ll see if they change their approach,” he said.

The county commission meets tomorrow at 9 a.m. for its agenda review session, then again at 4:30 p.m. for a public forum and 5:30 p.m. for the regular meeting. All meetings are held in the county’s downtown complex.