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Snohomish County Executive Somers clarifies jail plans

Washington looks for ways to reform its prison system. (Associated Press)

Snohomish County elected a new sheriff this month. Now, questions are emerging about whether the tough-on-crime top cop should retain control of the jail when he takes over.

Snohomish County has become a state and national model for its approach to homelessness and the opioid crisis, instituting programs such as the embedded social worker program, their diversion and resource centers, coordinated MAC group, and recently expanded medication assisted treatment program for jail inmates dealing with opioid addiction.

This is all in addition to reforms that outgoing Sheriff Ty Trenary put in place after a series of deaths at the jail attracted federal scrutiny.

County Executive Dave Somers says those reforms improved the jail, saved lives, and saved tax payers millions of dollars

“Every time somebody dies in our jail, there are lawsuits, and fines, and penalties,” Somers explained.

Trenary and Somers spearheaded many of the efforts over the last several years, but Trenary lost his re-election bid to long-time patrol Sergeant Adam Fortney in this past election. Fortney campaigned on a tough-on-crime approach and was critical of the policy to turn away low-level offenders from the jail for things like shoplifting if they were high on drugs.

Fortney says he never intended for the jail criticism to be the centerpiece of his campaign and has never said he planned to
end the jail policy or other social service programs once taking office.

But, Executive Somers has concerns.

“All of those programs have really been built over the last couple of years and some of the rhetoric during the campaign just caused me great concern [as to] whether those programs would continue or not,” Somers said.

“I did meet with the sheriff-elect Friday and we had a good conversation,” Somers added. “He assured me he wants to, or intends on, continuing a number of those programs, but we’ve only had one conversation so we obviously have a lot more that we need to work on together.”

It was after that meeting between the two on Friday that things started to go sideways and rumors erupted on social media that Somers planned to ask the county council to move oversight of the jail back to the executive office. First, Fortney posted it on his Facebook page, and suggested the executive was trying to work around the election results to snatch control of the jail away from his tough-on-crime approach. Then the Everett Police Union tweeted its criticism of the idea, and later Somers also posted on social media saying this was something he had been considering prior to the election.

That all led to speculation that Somers would make the request to switch the jail oversight back to his office at Monday’s county council meeting where Fortney and several of his supporters gathered to speak out against the request.

There was no proposal on Monday, but Somers says the idea of moving jail oversight back to his office, which he has been talking about with members of the council on and off for years, is not off the table.

While Somers says there was no direct effort to circumvent the new sheriff, he admits there are lingering questions about his intentions.

“Things are operating as smoothly as I’ve ever seen them [at the jail] and so with the change in sheriff, I do have some concerns about whether we’ll be able to maintain the programs that have been implemented,” Somers said.

As for the timing of the conversation?

“We had been discussing moving it anyway so it seemed like an opportune time to bring this discussion up,” Somers said. “I’ve been criticized that it looks like we’re undercutting the new sheriff — this is a difficult conversation no matter when it happens. It’s difficult now because we’re in transition, but in six months, in 12 months, or in two years it’s always going to be a difficult conversation.”

“My highest interest is making sure the jail is safe and managed efficiently and that’s what I think we need discuss – how that’s best accomplished,” Somers continued, adding at this point that he just doesn’t know what Fortney’s plans are for the jail and other programs.

For now, Fortney says he doesn’t either.

Asked after Monday’s council meeting about his plans for the programs, Fortney said he couldn’t say specifically just yet.

“I want stability for county employees. People voted change, there’s no doubt about it, and there will be changes, but I don’t want to come in and do drastic changes on day one,” Fortney said, adding that he had heard from corrections staff that they were pretty happy with the leadership at the jail and that if things are working, he is happy to leave that leadership in place.

As for medication assisted treatment for inmates, Fortney wants to wait and see.

“Depends if it’s working or not, I think it’s only been there for a couple of months,” Fortney said. “I think the initial results are good. That’s one of the things that over the next month, I’ve got to dive in. I’ve got to know more about that before I can tell you a certain direction that I’m going to go with that … there’s a couple concerns, too, but as far as I know now, it’s working good,” Fortney said.

Fortney did not elaborate on what those concerns might be, but did say he had recently spoken to a jail sergeant who was pleased with the results of the program.

Somers is not sure whether he’ll end up proposing to move the jail back to his office, and is open to the idea of seeing how Fortney decides to run things.

“I would imagine that if the jail stays with the sheriff’s office that we’ll be working to make Sheriff Fortney successful, maintain those programs, but we’ll also be watching that if we start backsliding, my office will certainly recommend corrective action,” Somers said.

As for the sheriff-elect?

“It all comes back to the election for me,” Fortney said. “The people voted, I deserve a chance. I’ve earned a chance, an opportunity to run the jail and the law enforcement side of the house, and that’s all I’m asking for.”

One thing both leaders seem to agree on is the need to work together.

Somers says he plans to meet with the council, Fortney, and others in the days ahead. Fortney described his position as being in a holding pattern until the county executive decided his next step.

“We’re going to give him some time, if he chooses to go down this road I will fight tooth and nail to stand with corrections,” Fortney said, pointing out that the corrections staff and their union were unhappy with the policies of the prior sheriff and pushed for change.

The county executive says it’s going to need to be a collaborative effort.

“We’re going to have to be a team on this and at the end of the day we need to work together and I’m committed to doing that,” Somers said.

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