Originally created 04/21/01

Jail employees support current leader



AIKEN - Most jail employees in Aiken County are satisfied with their current boss.

In an informal survey, staff at the Aiken County Detention Center voted more than 3-to-1 in favor of keeping the county administrator as manager of the jail, dealing the second blow to a proposal by Sheriff Howard Sellers to take over operations.

A citizens' advisory board that monitors detention center issues urged county council April 3 not to relinquish control.

In the survey, 27 employees, or 73 percent, supported no change while eight employees, or 22 percent, favored a takeover by the sheriff. Two others backed management by a private company.

Interim County Administrator Joan Wilson sent questionnaires to the homes of all 63 employees with return envelopes. Responses were anonymous, and not all staff returned the survey, she said.

"It was just to get an honest feeling from the employees about what their concerns were," Ms. Wilson said.

The survey and opinion of the advisory board are just two factors county council is expected to weigh in deciding whether to let Sheriff Sellers take control of the jail - either now or when a new $14.8 million facility opens this fall.

Former Sheriff Carroll Heath gave up control of the jail in 1985 when he first took office, saying he wanted the agency's full resources devoted to law enforcement activities. Aiken County Council agreed to take over control.

But Sheriff Sellers, elected to a third term in November, said the jail should be run by an elected official rather than a bureaucrat.

The new $14.8 million jail on Wire Road is set to open in late August or early September. Sheriff Sellers wants to take over control of the old jail July 1, the first day of the new county budget.

Council members are waiting on the recommendation of the Judicial and Public Safety Committee and financial proposals by private companies before they vote on the issue, Ms. Wilson said.

Sheriff Sellers met with jail staff April 9, taking questions during voluntary meetings with all three shifts. The sheriff got mixed reviews after the session, according to two jail employees, who agreed to speak only if their names were not used.

One employee said the sheriff was asked whether he intended to hire more minorities if he took over the jail.

"And he cracked a smile and said, `Yeah, I am going to hire more whites.' Then he cut it short because he thought everyone would smile or laugh. Nobody cracked a smile," the employee said. "He said we wouldn't have to worry about our jobs; no one is going to lose their job. But there will definitely be some changes. ... He never did answer any questions directly because he doesn't know what goes on in the jail."

Another employee, who voted in the survey to keep the current management, said she was reassured after talking to the sheriff and would probably support him now.

"Everybody's afraid of new changes. We are going to have a new jail and new everything else," she said. "After I spoke with him, I might have had a change of heart. He had more positive things then I thought, letting us know how it would be. He is more for us as a team. He has our interests at heart."

The survey results were e-mailed to the sheriff's assistant, Ms. Wilson said. Sheriff Sellers did not return messages left at his home and office seeking comment.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 648-1395.