Benton commissioners to vote on taking the jail away from the ‘distracted’ sheriff

Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher could soon lose control of the 700-plus bed jail.

As the embattled sheriff faces criminal charges over allegations he choked his estranged wife during a fight about an alleged extramarital affair, the county’s elected leaders plan to vote on removing the jail from his command.

Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin cited the jail’s unpaid bills along with Hatcher’s apparent failure to respond to inquiries about the situation as reason to revisit the idea of separating the jail from the sheriff’s office.

“I think we need to look now and ask our staff to take the jail off the sheriff’s plate. He’s got a lot of distractions now in his personal life,” Delvin said during the commission’s Oct. 8 meeting.

The discussion about removing the jail from the sheriff’s office was not on the commission’s published agenda. Delvin brought it up under “Other Business.”

Despite the lack of public notice, the commission voted 2-1 to develop a plan to form a new corrections department to oversee the jail. The matter is expected to return for a final decision on Oct. 22.

Chair Shon Small, a former sheriff’s deputy, cast the “no” vote but declined Monday to talk about his concerns.

“I don’t talk to the Tri-City Herald,” he said Monday.

The sheriff also could not be reached Monday about the proposal.

His personal and work mobile numbers would not accept messages. And he did not respond to email and voice mail messages left at his work accounts.

Hatcher took a few days off last week but has not resigned or stepped aside pending the outcome of the case, according to his attorney Scott Johnson.

Johnson said other command officers are handling the day-to-day operations while he is not there.

First considered in 2017

The three-man county commission first talked about taking over the jail in 2017.

That’s the year Hatcher ran against Ken Lattin of the Kennewick Police Department to fill out the remaining year of former Sheriff Steve Keane’s term.

Keane retired for health reasons.

Hatcher vehemently opposed removing the jail from the sheriff’s office at the time. The commission dropped the jail matter after he won the one-year term in November 2017.

Hatcher was re-elected to a four-year term in 2018.

A Benton County Sheriff corrections officer monitors computer and video screens in the master control room near the booking area of the Benton County Jail facility in Kennewick. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Unpaid bills

Delvin said during the recent commission meeting that he wanted to revive the issue after learning the sheriff’s department has not paid fees owed to Lourdes Medical Center for mental health services it provides to inmates.

The bill is unpaid since June, despite nearly $150,000 in the county’s budget for that purpose.

“That money hasn’t been spent. I don’t know why Lourdes hasn’t been paid when that money is there,” he said. Delvin said he’s concerned about the county’s potential liability.

It’s unclear how much the county owes on the unpaid balance. A county employee said during the meeting that Lourdes’ monthly expenses are about $25,000 and that it receives some money through a separate contract.

Lourdes officials were not immediately available Monday to comment.

Lourdes and the county’s human services manager have said that attempts to reach the sheriff about the unpaid bill went unanswered.

Commissioners said they’re concerned the now-private health care company that owns Lourdes could stop providing mental health services to inmates if it isn’t paid soon.

“I’m ready now. Let’s pull that trigger, take it over,” Delvin said at the meeting. “I think we need to find a qualified jail administrator to do this. At least then, we have direct control over contracts, how money is spent there.”

Independent manager

The proposal would put the jail under the control of a professional manager who would be hired to report directly to the commission, bypassing the sheriff altogether.

Benton Jail corrections.JPG
The Benton County Commission is preparing to take control of the 700-plus bed jail from embattled Sheriff Jerry Hatcher. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The independent jail model is used in a handful of Washington counties, including Yakima, Walla Walla and Spokane.

“I think it’s time we seriously go in that direction,” Delvin said.

Beaver indicated he would support the move.

“I was ready last time. My position hasn’t changed,” he said.

Teamsters Local 839, which represents 80 corrections officers and 25 clerical staff in the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, is neutral about the jail’s future until members can weigh in.

“I think we’ll just wait to see how it plays out,” Russell Shjervin, secretary/treasurer, said Monday.

Last week, the four unions representing the sheriff’s 200-plus employees called on Hatcher to resign after he was charged with felony witness tampering and fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor, for allegedly assaulting his wife.

The charges came after his wife filed for divorce last month and then she approached Delvin, a long-time friend and former police officer, about the alleged attack.

Washington State Patrol troopers investigated the criminal charges, which were filed by a special prosecutor from the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.

Sheriff Hatcher has adamantly denied he harmed his wife or tampered with witnesses and issued a statement last week calling the the claims “politically motivated” by Delvin and Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller.

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Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.