WALLA WALLA — A proposal by Sheriff John Turner to give his chief administrative deputy a hefty pay raise sparked protests by elected officials and others Monday.
Under a staff reorganization plan Turner presented to county commissioners, Shanda Zessin, whom Turner appointed to the administrative deputy post in March 2011, would go from earning about $66,900 a year to $80,669 a year, a 20.4 percent increase. With benefits, Zessin’s compensation would total $105,873, according Turner’s proposal.
View Sheriff Turner's memo
A copy of the sheriff's memo detailing his proposed restructuring is available here.
Despite the increase for Zessin, Turner told commissioners his proposed reorganization would actually save the county $13,205 a year because he plans to leave the undersheriff’s position unfilled. That post, which had a salary of $80,669 a year, was recently vacated by the resignation of Undersheriff Edward Freyer. That position also pays an additional $23,672 in benefits.
Along with funding Zessin’s salary increase, Turner’s proposal would also use the money for the undersheriff’s salary to increase the pay for an administrative assistant position and pay for an administrative secretary.
Under state law, Turner had five positions he can appoint based on the size of the Sheriff’s Office. The remaining two appointed positions under Turner’s proposal are for chief operations deputy and chief corrections deputy.
Although Commissioner Jim Johnson said he’s satisfied with Turner’s proposal and wanted to move head with approval, Commissioners Perry Dozier and Greg Tompkins did not agree. Dozier moved to table any decision to allow further review and consideration and the motion passed 2-1, with Dozier and Tompkins voting “yes” and Johnson voting “no”.
Turner said the proposed changes were strictly about the need to effectively manage a successful law enforcement agency. “My proposal is about positions, both current positions and positions that are allowable by law and specific job duties that we perform. It’s not about personalities or the specific people who currently hold those positions. It’s about structure ... .” he told commissioners.
But county Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner, County Auditor Karen Martin and county Clerk Kathy Martin all said the proposed pay raise for Zessin was not justified.
Heimbigner said all of the elected officials have chief deputies who shoulder responsibilities equal to Zessin’s, but who are not looking at a major increase in pay.
“I’m thinking that if we’re going to do something like this ... you need to take a look at all the chief deputies in the county,” Heimbigner said. “Because it’s not really fair to say one has all this extra responsibility, when you really look at it, and there’s not.”
But Johnson disagreed.
“I sort of subscribed to the same train of thought until I looked at all the duties and responsibilities and the call-outs in the middle of the night and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think the chief deputy treasurer gets called at midnight because of an incident.”
He then questioned why Heimbigner and the others had not complained before when former Undersheriff Carole Lepiane was being paid a comparitive salary under former Sheriff Mike Humphreys.
According to the county’s Auditor’s Office, Lepiane’s annual salary in 2010 was $74,524 a year. She has been appointed undersheriff at the start of 1987 and served in that position until June 2009 when she left due to health reasons. Her retirement became official at the end of 2010.
“Did you have the same argument and complaint when the previous sheriff had an undersheriff, who was not in law enforcement and was not a deputy ... but was primarily administrative and was making a salary that was not only above your chief deputy but above you as electeds?” Johnson asked.
Heimbigner replied that Lepiane never received as large an increase in salary as Turner was proposing to give Zessin.
“It was history with us,” Heimbigner said. “There was not this great big salary increase that we’re looking at.”
He also argued that commissioners had not done a fair comparison of the top salaries in the county, only looking at the two top salaries in the county and not including the chief deputies of elected officials.
Karen Martin argued that Turner and commissioners were creating another position.
“The current sheriff has her as chief administrative deputy,” she said. “The official title is office manager. That is the official title, John, that went through payroll, and it has not been changed ... .”
Martin also said she had a problem with Zessin’s proposed salary, which she said should not be the same as the sheriff’s chief road deputy or jail administrator.
Another speaker questioning Turner’s proposed reorganization was Tom Cooper, who has declared himself as a candidate for sheriff in this November’s election.
Cooper questioned what would happen if the decision was made to reappoint an undersheriff.
“All of a sudden you’re going to be putting a $104,000 salary back in,” he said. He also said that increasing the administrative deputy’s salary by nearly $14,000 was excessive. “I believe that (position) shouldn’t be compensated at that level.” he said.
Andy Porter can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8318.