Originally created 02/11/01

Battle brews for jail control



AIKEN - As construction workers continue to install bunk beds and complete the concrete foundation of Aiken County's new $14.8 million jail, a potential controversy is brewing over Sheriff Howard Sellers' request to wrest control of the detention center from the Aiken County Council.

Sheriff Sellers and the council have not had a smooth relationship over the years, especially concerning budget matters. And now, Sheriff Sellers wants the county council to surrender control of the jail 16 years after former Sheriff Carroll Heath asked the local government to take over operations.

That could lead to a public debate and a court battle, said Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association.

"If you really want to get to the meat of this matter, the question is going to be: Does that agreement that Carroll Heath signed in 1985 stand with every sheriff after him?" Mr. Moore said. "Or can a sheriff say, `I no longer am a party to it and I want the jail back?'

"That's a legal question that only a court's going to be able to decide."

State law gives sheriffs the responsibility of running the county jail, but it says he may designate someone to run the jail. Once a sheriff signs over control, Mr. Moore said, it probably commits all future sheriffs to the agreement - unless the county council agrees to give back control.

In 1985, then-Sheriff Heath asked the county to take over management so he could concentrate solely on public safety.

Recently, though, the state trend has been for county-run jails to return to sheriff-controlled facilities, something that has happened in at least a half-dozen counties in South Carolina.

"The county councils wanted to get out of it," Mr. Moore said.

In Dillon County, county officials dropped control of the facility in the sheriff's lap, though he didn't ask for it. In Marlboro, Oconee and Georgetown counties, the sheriffs requested it, and the county governments obliged.

Throughout the state, 28 of 46 sheriffs run their jails.

"Running a jail is not an easy or pleasant job. It's very difficult. It's very complicated," Mr. Moore said. "I think most government entities come to realize this and they just simply decide that this is a headache we don't need to deal with. Let's just let the sheriff deal with it. He's the one who should be running the jail.

"It's just one of those things that local government decided they don't want to do anymore. If they choose not to continue to manage the jail, the law is very specific. It says the sheriff is the custodian of the jail; there is nowhere else to go."

According to sheriff's spokesman Lt. Michael Frank, the sheriff is not ready to publicly outline his reasons for taking control of the new jail, which is slated to open in the fall.

But Sheriff Sellers has requested a public debate, and the issue is on Tuesday night's agenda for the Judicial and Public Safety Committee. The committee consists of council members Susan Giddings, Phil Napier and Joel Randall.

In preparation for his request, Sheriff Sellers met Jan. 8 with police chiefs from every police department in the county, outlining how he could benefit their departments. He promised to provide transportation of inmates and allow local law enforcement agencies to use jail space for booking, fingerprinting and interrogating suspects.

Maj. Dan Edwins, jail administrator for the current detention center, was working when control switched from the sheriff to the county council. He said there are advantages and disadvantages to a sheriff running the jail.

"He could hire people and have them work as detention officers and get them through the probation period. And then, if they are qualified, he could bring them on up through the ranks as deputies," Maj. Edwins said. "That's a big advantage a sheriff would have. He could cultivate a road crew from within the detention center."

But Maj. Edwins hasn't taken a position on who should run the jail.

"If the sheriff took the jail over, I would support him. If the county council keeps the jail, I would support them," he said.

In a letter to the county council, Sheriff Sellers says his proposal is supported by the other primary users of the Aiken County Detention Center, including chiefs of police and directors of public safety for all incorporated municipalities in Aiken County.

But Pete Frommer, director for the Aiken Department of Public Safety, said last week that he has not taken a position on who should run the jail. He said he favors the services proposed by Sheriff Sellers but added that he will support whomever has control.

As for the county council, Sheriff Sellers could be in for a tough fight.

Council member Phil Napier, a member of the Judicial and Public Safety Committee, said he is worried Sheriff Sellers would overspend if allowed to operate the new jail.

"We've been told years ago that he could operate his sheriff's department on a certain amount without an increase in budget, and there has been a drastic increase over the last eight years," Mr. Napier said.

But the council member said he will remain open-minded.

"I need to look at it to determine which way will be the best savings for the taxpayers of the county," Mr. Napier said. "That's the way it should be looked at."

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 648-1395.