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County postpones Correctional System master plan

Thursday, March 26, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has temporarily halted preliminary steps toward a new County Correctional System master plan.

At Tuesday’s Commissioners Court voting session, Eckhardt agreed to delay a vote on whether to proceed to the second part of a two-phase process after Commissioner Gerald Daugherty insisted on hearing from one critically important stakeholder: the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

The decision to delay came as the unexpected finale to a lengthy discussion that began with staff and consultants delivering their final report on the first phase of the process. That briefing lasted nearly two hours and outlined findings and recommendations in several areas, including jailhouse staffing, inmate health, inmate programs and future jail capacity. The commissioners also received a published form of the report, which spans close to 200 pages.

After the briefing, Commissioner Margaret Gómez moved to authorize an additional $288,390 to initiate the second phase, which would begin penciling in specific actions to implement the report’s recommendations. Combined with the $461,310 price tag of the first phase, the entire master plan update would end up costing the county $749,700.

That amount, coupled with the fact that several of the recommendations would be nonbinding on the Sheriff’s Office, made Daugherty cold to the idea.

“Wouldn’t it make sense to have a work session or have a conversation with the sheriff to see which part he’s interested in doing before we spend another $288,000?” Daugherty asked. He went on to say that from “just my few years of dealing with the sheriff’s department, whenever you give them a report that says, ‘Maybe you ought to try this,’ they go, ‘Thank you very much, but we’re in the business and we run the jail.’”

Daugherty was replying to planning project manager Mark Gilbert, who had told him that they only recently delivered the final report to the Sheriff’s Office. However, Gilbert added, his team had “given them different versions as we’ve gone through (the study.)”

On Wednesday, Gilbert told the Austin Monitor, “We worked with the Sheriff’s Office staff, and they agreed with the vast majority” of the report’s recommendations.

Daugherty was not the only voice of hesitation on the dais Tuesday. Commissioner Ron Davis expressed his frustration at the lack of input from the City of Austin. He reminded his colleagues that the city had taken steps toward building its own booking facility, a scenario that could have dramatic effects on the county’s operation.

“And if it does, then I need to hear that from them,” Davis said. “So just stands to reason, as far as I’m concerned, that I wouldn’t want to spend any more money and not know what I’m spending it for, what’s on the table, what the options are.”

Eckhardt told both Daugherty and Davis that she understood the desire to slow down and hear from the city and the sheriff. She also explained that many of the report’s recommendations fall under the purview of the Commissioners Court and can be implemented without the sheriff’s approval. And she made no bones about her belief that the study’s second phase must ultimately be approved.

“It’s absolutely crucial to us making an informed decision moving forward,” Eckhardt said. “But we cannot rely on the sheriff’s department’s assessment alone, because the sheriff’s department, not through any fault but through the mere existence of the structure, has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.”

After confirming with county purchasing agent Cyd Grimes that a short pause in the planning process would not derail the entire affair, Eckhardt announced she would delay the vote for two weeks and invite representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, the City of Austin and the Austin Police Department to a county work session to discuss the report in the interim.

Daugherty warned her that the sheriff and his staff would be “apoplectic” and predicted that they would tell the commissioners that they simply could not enact the recommendations.

“But we can, and that’s what I’m saying,” Eckhardt responded. “Sí, se puede. We have authority and power, and I think that the days have gone by when we have said, as a Commissioners Court, ‘We can’t do anything, it’s a separate elected official.’ We do have authority and power over the issue.”

“It’s gone by, but it’s a new day,” Daugherty told her. “Bring them over here.”


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