EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers made clear Monday that control of the county jail isn’t going to change hands anytime soon.
But the idea of shifting oversight from the sheriff to the executive branch isn’t completely off the table.
“While there is no formal proposal to change management of the jail at this time, we will continue to engage in policy discussions with the County Council, the sheriff-elect, and the public over the important topic of how to maximize public safety and protect taxpayers’ dollars,” he said in a statement.
Somers sought to quell concerns that his interest in a potential reorganization is somehow linked to the election of a new tough-on-crime sheriff whom he had opposed.
“These are issues we have been discussing for a number of years, and it’s important that those discussions continue,” he said.
Those worries surfaced not long after Somers met with sheriff-elect Adam Fortney on Friday. It was their first sit-down and Somers broached the subject of jail management.
The next day, in separate Facebook posts, Somers revealed he was “considering asking the County Council to put the jail back under the Executive office” and Fortney stated his opposition, vowing a public fight if necessary. Republican County Councilmen Nate Nehring and Sam Low expressed their opposition, via Facebook as well.
On Monday, two Democratic members of the County Council said they didn’t see a need for any immediate restructuring.
“I think we need to do a study and to see how the new sheriff does in the next year or two. He’ll bring in his management team and we’ll see how it works,” said Councilman Brian Sullivan, who will depart office in a few weeks because of term limits and start a new job as county treasurer.
Sullivan was among the council majority that voted in 2008 to shift management of the jail out of the executive branch and into the Sheriff’s Department. So, too, was Somers. Sullivan said the two have had conversations since then about the potential of switching back.
“By far this is not a new idea,” he said. “When we originally moved the jail we really didn’t know if it was permanent or not.”
Council Chairman Terry Ryan said when he arrived on the council six years ago, it was dealing with the negative aftereffects of the move.
“We have resolved the past problems of the jail and it is a model jail now,” Ryan said. “Can we make sure that we keep in place all of the improvements that we’ve made? If (the executive and sheriff-elect) can resolve those questions, I think everything will be fine.”
The council dissolved the Corrections Department and merged the administration and operation of the jail into the Sheriff’s Department as a means of saving money and addressing friction between jail management and unionized workers.
But there have been hurdles.
A dozen inmate deaths between 2010 and 2014 led to large legal settlements. A Department of Justice review led to improved staffing and procedures for monitoring incarcerated people, which cost money.
There also have been changes in the scope of the jail’s services. As the opioid epidemic intensified, more than one out of three people who are jailed test positive for opioids, The Herald reported earlier this year. It’s forced expansion of medical care for inmates.
Ty Trenary began serving as sheriff in 2013, and Somers took office as county executive in 2016. As Trenary devised and implemented reforms to curb the deaths and improve treatment, the two leaders have had numerous conversations about management of the jail. Somers never asked the council to consider a change — and still hasn’t.
“There is no formal proposal on the table and nothing is imminent. It is at the level of policy discussions,” said Kent Patton, a spokesman for Somers. “After the county spent almost $13 million on claims resulting from jail deaths over the last 10 years, ongoing policy discussions about management of the jail should be expected.”
In his statement, as on Facebook, Somers didn’t mention Trenary but stressed the importance of preserving the reforms he instituted.
“We must recognize that the jail is not only a detention facility, but also the county’s largest mental health and substance abuse facility. Law breakers must be held accountable, and at the same time we need to help people find a path to a healthy, productive life. Without that path, we are left with an expensive revolving door of recidivism and streets that are unsafe.”
Fortney could not be reached Monday. In his Facebook post, he tried to allay concerns he might try to undo what his current boss has done.
“I think I was able to correct some pre-conceived notions he may have had about my plans for the jail,” he wrote.
Sullivan said he read the Facebook posts from both men and expected the two will have more conversations.
“This will be an issue in the future,” he said.
This story has been modified to correct the year Ty Trenary became sheriff.