Sheriff relinquishing jail

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Sheriff Matt Murray informed Curry County commissioners he is returning command of the jail to them Tuesday, leaving county leaders questioning what to do next.

Murray’s decision was announced in a letter sent late Thursday. The sheriff said his decision to relinquish command was the result of the commission’s rejection Tuesday of a budget that would have allowed an increase of staff at the jail.

“These positions are desperately needed to safely, securely and properly operate CCADC (Curry County Adult Detention Center). Without these minimum requests in place, I do not feel that the existing problems at the facility can begin to be corrected,” Murray wrote.

“For these reasons, I regret that I am forced to withdraw my offer for permanent management. I will relinquish management responsibilities to Mr. (Lance) Pyle, Mr. (Kirk) Roberts and you, the Curry County Commission, on June 1, 2010 at 12:01 AM (sic).”

Murray stated the recommendation for additional staff was established in the findings of a 2008 security risk assessment of the jail that called for an increase in staff to reduce stress, exhaustion, sick time, overtime and security gaps.

“I was shocked and I was dismayed at reading Sheriff Murray’s letter,” Commission Chairman Bobby Sandoval said.

“However I disagree with the sheriff that the recommendation for the proposed 10 positions was rejected.”

Sandoval said county leaders are in talks with entities, “that if need be will come and help us to address this emergency situation and to make sure the jail remains safe.”

Sandoval said Tuesday the commission voted on whether or not to adopt a preliminary budget recommended by the Pyle, which will act as the operating budget for the next two months, but can be changed at any time.

“I, as well as anyone, know the need for the 10 positions but at present we have 13 vacancies. When we fill all of these vacancies the commission will address the extra 10,” he said.

“I want to assure the people of Curry County that our jail was safe last week, it is safe right now, and the Curry County Commission will do everything in its power to see that it’s just as safe next week.”

Thursday evening, Commissioner Wendell Bostwick said the letter came as a surprise. He said the county is reviewing its options and trying to determine the next step.

“We’re seeing what statutory obligations are and if we can get somebody to assist in the management until we can get something done,” Bostwick said.

“I hope within the next week to 10 days, we’ve got things on the right track.”

Murray has been in command 95 days. He assumed command when Interim Administrator Carlos Ortiz and several command staff walked off the job after a Feb. 21 attempted escape of four inmates.

The initial agreement for emergency management of the facility — which he terms “an extended service to the county” — was 60-90 days while the county sought an administrator, Murray pointed out in his letter.

And he pointed out attempts by the county to fill the vacant position of administrator have been “futile,” with most candidates withdrawing or failing to show up for interviews.

At a May 18 meeting and last Tuesday, commissioners discussed the need to decide between giving permanent command of the facility to Murray or hiring an administrator.

Murray previously said he would take command if needed.

Bostwick said he has studied the pros and cons of both management possibilities, and Thursday’s action by Murray is, “definitely one of the cons,” of having an elected official in charge of the jail.

“He is an elected official that doesn’t answer to the commission. However, we’re still responsible, so that’s a problem,” he said.

“We ultimately are responsible and we just have to have people that are accountable to us, and the sheriff is not accountable to us … I hope that the sheriff is not upset or bitter about this, I understand where he’s coming from. It is a big challenge and I appreciate what he’s done for us. We all have to do what we have to do. Matt’s done a wonderful job.”

Pyle said he had not read the letter Thursday night, but has discussed the matter with commissioners.

“I appreciate the sheriff for everything he’s done these past few months,” Pyle said. “He’s done a great job.”

Pyle said work was ongoing with a five-person panel — consisting of himself, Commissioners Frank Blackburn, Bobby Sandoval, Finance Manager Mark Lansford and IT Director Aaron Jones — to find a new administrator. The panel, he said, has conducted two interviews with another scheduled today.

Pyle said he hopes to have a candidate named in the next week.

Commissioner Caleb Chandler, who supported the recommendation for additional detention center staff, said by e-mail he received Murray’s letter Thursday evening and had not had an opportunity to completely review it.