Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner’s recent proposal to reorganize his top command staff, including a 20 percent pay raise for the current administrative assistant, has raised a few eyebrows.
A pay raise from $66,900 to $80,669 is significant for a county employee, particularly when the county government has been hit with cuts to staff and funding in recent years.
And on the surface, a 20 percent increase seems excessive unless significant responsibilities are added and driven by the market.
Nevertheless, Turner is an elected official who answers to the voters, and only the voters.
If he feels this is the right direction for his office, and the resources are available, this decision is his to make. The voters will have their say, good or bad, at the next election.
The sheriff and the county’s other elected officials — prosecutor, treasurer, auditor, clerk, assessor and coroner — have a great deal of freedom in deciding how to staff their offices.
The three-member Board of Commissioners does not directly supervise the elected officials. The commissioners only oversee the budget.
Because the budget is involved, Turner went before the three commissioners Monday pitching the reorganization plan.
Turner told commissioners his proposed reorganization will save the county $13,205 a year because the undersheriff’s position will not be filled. That post, which had a salary of $80,669 a year, was recently vacated when Undersheriff Edward Freyer resigned.
Turner’s proposal would use some of the money for the vacated undersheriff position to boost Shanda Zessin’s salary, increase the pay for an administrative assistant position and fund an administrative secretary. If the sheriff is vastly increasing Zessin’s responsibilities to the point it merits a salary equal to what the undersheriff was making, the raise could be considered reasonable.
The three commissioners voted 2 to 1, with Jim Johnson casting the dissenting vote, to table the matter for further review after the plan drew criticism from some of the other elected officials. Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner, Auditor Karen Martin and Clerk Kathy Martin all said the proposed pay raise for Zessin was not justified.
The arguments made by all the elected officials, mostly centered on the inequity of pay with their top administrators, have merit (although, again, the job responsibility and market must be considered).
However, those and other considerations, while relevant, are not where the commissioners should focus.
The commissioners have no authority to micromanage how elected officials run their offices, but they do have oversight over budget matters. Commissioners can consider whether the funding of a new structure is prudent.
But even the commissioners’ vote won’t be the final word. Judgment on the wisdom of Turner’s plan comes from those to whom the sheriff answers — the voters.