Tiff arises over prisoner transport

By Robin Fornoff: FNM Content Editor

Sheriff Matt Murray and Curry County administrators are locked in a struggle over who pays for transporting jail inmates for medical services.

The political tiff bobbed to the surface briefly Tuesday when Commissioner Robert Sandoval questioned a $440 charge to Murray’s credit card on Aug. 10 for legal services to Tatum & McDowell of Clovis.

Sandoval wondered why the sheriff sought legal advice from someone other than County Attorney Stephen Doerr. Murray said because Doerr represents the county and not the sheriff’s office, declining to offer specific details.

It turns out Murray sought and claims to have received a legal opinion bolstering his contention the sheriff isn’t bound by any state law to provide medical transportation for inmates. The opinion is in direct opposition to Doerr’s, who has decreed the sheriff is bound to provide all inmate transportation, including to and from hospitals.

Coincidentally, Doerr’s annual contract came up for renewal at the same county commission meeting.

Chairman Caleb Chandler suggested it might be time to advertise and see if the county could land a lawyer for less money than Doerr’s $140 an hour rate. On a split vote, the commission opted to extend Doerr’s contract 90 days and ordered County Manager Lance Pyle to advertise for candidates seeking a possible new staff position as county attorney.

The vote was 3-2, with Sandoval and Commissioner Frank Blackburn dissenting, both saying they were disappointed Doerr’s contract wasn’t renewed the usual period of time.

“I still don’t know what happened,” Sandoval said later. “There’s going to be a lot of questions asked about this.”

Responding to questions from the CNJ, Undersheriff Wesley Waller confirmed the sheriff, armed with a new legal opinion, has stopped providing prisoner transport to and from hospitals.

“We were being asked to take that responsibility and we had concerns…due to the frequency of medical care for inmates that it was taxing our department,” Waller said. “It was creating an overtime issue for us.”

Waller said that based on Doerr’s opinion, the sheriff began transporting inmates to hospitals on May 19 and stopped July 25 because “during that period…we handled this almost nightly.”

“We had one to two people on overtime almost every night,” he said, adding “it was taxing the personnel and it was not budgeted.”

Waller said while the sheriff’s office is required by state law to transport inmates to and from other jails or prisons, Murray, he said, doesn’t believe there is any such requirement when it comes to transport for medical reasons.

County Manager Lance Pyle said he believes the sheriff has been obligated to provide all prisoner transportation since shortly after eight inmates escaped from the jail in August 2008.

Pyle produced minutes of a commission meeting on Sept. 3, 2008, that noted transport officers, who formerly worked for the jail, “are now under the Sheriff’s Office effective September 2, 2008.”

Pyle said detention officers at the jail are now transporting inmates to hospitals.