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Rantz: Snohomish County Exec pushes a plan to keep prolific criminals out of jail

(Associated Press)

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers is advancing a plan to move oversight over the county’s jail from the sheriff to his office. It’s seen as a clear effort to stop the incoming sheriff from arresting prolific criminals. Moreover, it’s a dangerous abuse of power that spits in the face of voters.

Conversations about the plan, which has not yet been presented to the public, advanced last week after Sergeant Adam Fortney’s surprise win over Sheriff Ty Trenary.

“I just want to stop turning my back on [prolific offenders],” Sheriff-elect Fortney tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “Never once have I said we’re not going to get people help once they said they want help. People just picked up on the ‘tough on crime’ tag. You can do both. Not only can we do both, we have to do both.”

But before Fortney has a chance to take over the sheriff’s office, Somers plans to take control of the jail with the help of a Democrat-controlled Snohomish County Council. It remains unclear if Somers has the votes. If he does — or thinks he will — Somers will introduce the plan Monday morning to the council. Afterwards, there would be public hearings.

As rumor of the unpopular move spread over the weekend, Somers took to Facebook to seemingly double down on his idea.

“My office has been considering asking the county council to put the jail back under the executive office. It was this way for many years,” Somers posted in a statement on Facebook once his plan leaked.

Somers may have been considering this for a while, but the conversations were held privately and not in front of the council.

He continued: “I am looking forward to working with Adam Fortney to make sure we are keeping our communities safe but also helping people out of addiction and back to a productive healthy life. That is my sole goal.”

It’s a goal shared by Fortney, which makes this move by Somers more suspect. Fortney has routinely said he isn’t looking to change the current policy of offering help to addicts, but said he will no longer give a free pass to prolific offenders who refuse help and continue

Fortney got wind of the proposal last Wednesday and quickly organized a meeting with Somers to discuss shared concerns. Somers, a Trenary supporter, met with Fortney on Friday. This is the first time the two had met.

“With the talk about booking more people and being tough on crime, I think I alleviated some of his concerns,” Fortney told me.

But the Saturday night post by Somers suggests the executive still plans to move forward with his proposal. Lake Stevens City Councilmember Todd Welch condemned the move, telling the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH: “Making or attempting such a change at this point would be partisan politics and retribution. I hope he shows leadership and ability to work with other County elected officials.”

Councilmembers Nate Nehring and Sam Low released a joint statement in opposition to the proposal over the weekend, saying it “directly undermines the will of the voters of Snohomish County.”

“Adam Fortney was elected by the voters on a platform which included holding prolific offenders accountable through changes on booking restrictions,” Nehring tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “A proposal to remove decision-making authority on jail issues away from the Sheriff’s Office would take away Sheriff-elect Fortney’s ability to make those changes. I will oppose such a proposal as I believe it directly undermines the will of the voters who elected Adam Fortney to make those decisions on behalf of the public.”

Snohomish County councilmembers Terry Ryan, Stephanie Wright, and Brian Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment.

Snohomish County reacts swiftly and harshly

Leaders in Snohomish County cities also became alarmed at the proposal, some who only learned about it via Somers’ Facebook post. They weren’t happy with the proposal.

Lake Stevens Mayor-elect Brett Gailey tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that when the proposal leaked, two jailers and a deputy contacted him in a panic.

“[They] where extremely concerned and saw exactly what it is — my guy didn’t win, so we’re taking the football and going home,” Gailey tells me. “If you don’t think that Adam is up to the job, why not let him prove it? If you don’t think he can handle it, then prove it… but to go back to 2009 when it was under the executive, what is different now?”

The biggest difference is the leader. And not allowing Fortney to enact his policies could be seen as intentionally undercutting the sheriff.

“I think it should be left with the sheriff,” Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring told me. “The voters voted for Fortney and he should run it how he sees fit. I think when the voters speak and elect somebody, the last thing you want to do is take away their ability to do their job completely.”

Nehring is one of the mayors to successfully tackle prolific offenders, an issue that has impacted Snohomish County cities of all sizes. In Sultan, the incoming mayor opposes the move.

“I hope that Sheriff-elect Fortney gets the chance to run the county jail as he was elected to do,” Mayor-elect Russell Wiitta tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “My constituents in Sultan overwhelmingly favored Fortney’s approach to law enforcement and I look forward to working with him in our new roles.”

Now what?

Since the plan has been kept under wraps, it’s unclear how it would impact cities that have service agreements with Snohomish County.

City leaders in Monroe heard about the proposal online Saturday night and won’t have a comment until they could review the plan to see how it might impact the city’s interlocal agreement for jail services with Snohomish County.

In the meantime, Snohomish County activists are urging constituents to weigh in by contacting their council representatives.

Somers released a statement on Monday:

While there is no formal proposal to change management of the jail at this time, we will continue to engage in policy discussions with the County Council, the sheriff-elect, and the public over the important topic of how to maximize public safety and protect taxpayers’ dollars. These are issues we have been discussing for a number of years, and it’s important that those discussions continue.

We must recognize that the jail is not only a detention facility, but also the county’s largest mental health and substance abuse facility. Law breakers must be held accountable, and at the same time we need to help people find a path to a healthy, productive life. Without that path, we are left with an expensive revolving door of recidivism and streets that are unsafe.

It was only a few years ago that there were a string of tragic jail deaths, and our taxpayers paid $12.79 million dollars to resolve lawsuits resulting from those deaths. The jail is expected to receive accreditation later this month, a rare event in our state. We cannot afford to lose the progress that we have made. At the end of the day, we want a safe and efficiently run jail.

I am looking forward to working with Sheriff-elect Adam Fortney to make sure we are keeping our communities safe and protecting taxpayers’ dollars. That is my sole goal.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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