Walla Walla County sheriff's reorganization plan OK'd; pay raise nixed

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WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla County commissioners today approved a reorganization of appointed positions in the Sheriff’s Office, but with changes after several meeting on the issue.

By a 2-1 vote, commissioners approved descriptions and titles requested by Sheriff John Turner for five appointed positions, but did not approve a pay raise for Shanda Zessin, chief administrative deputy, leaving her salary at $66,982. Commissioners also rescinded an earlier motion to take $13,200 out of the Sheriff’s budget, which is the amount Turner said the reorganization would save in salaries even with Zessin’s pay raise.

Commissioners Perry Dozier and Greg Tompkins voted for the motion; Commissioner Jim Johnson voted no.

The action allows the $13,205 dollars Turner said the reorganization would save plus the additional $13,687 that would have used to increase Zessin’s salary to remain in Turner’s budget.

“Any and all savings stay in his budget,” Johnson said. Those can be used by the sheriff for anything but salaries.

Along with Zessin’s position, the other appointed positions were for chief operations deputy, chief corrections deputy, an administrative assistant and an administrative secretary. Commissioners left out approval of a job description and proposed salary incentive for the undersheriff’s position, which was vacated earlier this year by the resignation of former Undersheriff Edward Freyer.

Under state law, Turner has up to five positions he can appoint based on the number of personnel in the Sheriff’s Office.

The proposed pay raise for Zessin would have made her salary equal to the two other top appointed positions, Chief Operations Deputy John King and Chief Corrections Deputy Keilen Harmon, who each draw $80,669 a year not including benefits. The salaries for the remaining two appointed positions will be $35,485 for the administrative assistant post and $32,198 for the administrative secretary position.

Earlier this week commissioners had moved to allow Turner to set salaries for the five appointed positions “as he sees fit.” But commissioners learned afterward that state law prohibits them from delegating that authority. That led to today’s special meeting to resolve the issue.

The proposed 20.4 percent raise in Zessin’s salary had drawn protests from other county elected officials. At today’s meeting, Dozier and Tompkins said they were also hesitant to approve the increase.

Dozier said he was not in favor of the pay raise due to the still-ongoing negotiations with the commissioned deputies union, which is set to go to binding arbitration in April.

“With that in mind, I have a hard time turning and increasing a salary of that magnitude for one individual,” he said. He also noted that salaries for two commissioners have been frozen for the past two years “and we have not (given) large increases in salaries for any of our people whether or not they were doing a good job or doing more (than expected).”

Tompkins said his concerns were centered on “risk and liability” in regard to Turner’s earlier statements that chief deputies worked “80-90 weeks” in addition to being to being called back at any time.

“My concern is the 80-90 hour work weeks for anybody in this county,” Tompkins said. “I believe that’s a risk for us to have any employee doing that.”

Johnson said he felt the sheriff’s plan showed “fiscal restraint” because it would reduce the overall salaries by $13,205 as proposed. However, he said, it would be a serious issue if Turner came back at a later date and said he needed an undersheriff. That would require removing a position, and if the lowest-paid appointed position were dropped off, it would increase the sheriff’s budget about $42,000.

“That would irritate the heck out of me,” he said. “And I would find any way possible to make sure that didn’t happen.”

“My approval of what you are asking is contingent upon the fact that you can get it done adequately with what you have presented to me,” Johnson said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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