Meetings between Commission, sheriff should be public

It is the job of the sheriff to develop strategic plans while the Board of County Commissioners oversee the budget.

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The budget discussion between Sheriff John Turner and the three county commissioners got heated this week when it veered off course.

Instead of focusing on the specifics of the budget, the meeting became a debate over whether commissioners Gregg Loney, Greg Tompkins and Perry Dozier should meet individually with Turner and his command staff to discuss and develop strategic plans for the Sheriff's Office.

It is simply not the job of the county commissioners to help develop strategic plans for the Sheriff's Office. That is the sole responsibility of the county sheriff, who is directly elected by the people of Walla Walla County.

The Board of County Commissioners is a legislative body. The commissioners are elected to oversee the overall operation of the county, which includes establishing the budget.

The three commissioners, however, are not the sheriff's direct boss. The people are the sheriff's boss.

The expectation is that the sheriff oversees the Sheriff's Office and establishes polices and develops strategic plans. The sheriff makes a budget request to the commissioners, who then allocate funding based on those plans as well as other factors such as the needs of other county offices and how much money is available.

Holding private meetings on a regular basis between individual commissioners and the sheriff is unnecessary.

That's the case whether it is the sheriff or any of the other independently elected county officials. The auditor doesn't develop strategy with the commissioners on how to run an election nor does the coroner develop with commissioners policies regarding autopsies.

The three commissioners said they would be willing to discuss various issues with Turner in a public meeting that is recorded -- just like all commission meetings.

"That way we all hear the same thing and they are recorded for the public to listen to, and then I would be willing to do that. And I've told the sheriff that, too," Tompkins said.

Exactly. The people's business should always be done in public.

Turner, however, has concerns about meeting in public.

"You know that plan doesn't work because when it comes to tactics and how we deploy people (and) when we talk about the tremendous civil and safety liability issues to the office, that's not for the public," he said.

It was suggested by a commissioner that when sensitive topics come up the commissioners and sheriff could meet behind closed doors in an executive session with their attorney.

Absolutely not. We do not believe that would be legal under the state's Open Public Meetings Act. The law narrowly defines the subjects for which meetings can be closed, things such as personnel matters and pending litigation. Strategic plans for law enforcement do not apply.

Developing strategic plans is best done by the sheriff and his command staff. And after those plans are developed the commissioners -- in public -- provide oversight through the budget process.

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