Ramsey County board agrees: Sheriff’s second in command should be next sheriff

Pioneer Press

By Mara H. Gottfried | mgottfried@pioneerpress.com

January 4, 2017

The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to appoint the sheriff’s second-in-command for the sheriff job, despite criticism from some about not opening up the job for applications. Commissioners will vote on the matter at their board meeting next Tuesday.

Sheriff Matt Bostrom retired Tuesday. He was halfway through his second four-year term as sheriff and the County Board is responsible for appointing a new sheriff until the next election in 2018.

Commissioners considered opening up the appointment to applications, but decided to interview only Ramsey County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Jack Serier. Commissioners have said they want the sheriff’s office work to continue with as little disruption as possible.

Among the people who came to listen to Serier’s public interview Tuesday were 10 Ramsey County jail correctional officers and sergeants. The union representing correctional officers has raised safety concerns about understaffing, saying in a letter to county commissioners last month that the jail is in a “state of emergency” and a steward said he felt Serier had only skimmed the surface of the issue during his interview.

Serier initially brought up the issue, telling commissioners: “My concern and the work of our administration staff on detention staffing are something we have been working on for quite some time. … I also recognize that this is one of many staffing concerns that are placed before you on a regular basis and I will not act in any way publicly to sensationalize the issue.”

A consulting firm conducted a staffing study of the entire sheriff’s office, which is due to be presented to the board this year.

Commissioner Blake Huffman pressed Serier about his approach to jail staffing going forward, saying the safety implications are important.

“There’s a number of different things,” Serier said. “… One of them is certainly going to be a request for staff.” He also said they’d be looking at how they’re scheduling staff and whether the overtime they’re spending to fill staff shortages could be converted to full-time equivalent positions “to try to make more positions without creating more budgetary burden.”

The sheriff’s office 2017 operating budget is $54.9 million and provides for 395 full-time employees.

Chad Lydon, a union steward and correctional officer, said he was glad the topic of jail staffing was discussed Tuesday, but he’d hoped to hear a more concrete action plan because the issue has been ongoing for years.

“We were really looking forward to an answer today and we didn’t get it,” he said.

CONTINUING BOSTROM’S WORK

Commissioners say they approve of the direction that Bostrom took the sheriff’s office, and Serier told them Tueday that he shared Bostrom’s vision. He offered his thoughts about the already-established goals of the sheriff’s office, including:

  • Diversifying the department to reflect the community. “In order to continue to address the questions about disparity of outcomes in law enforcement, it is important to engage communities in ongoing discussions, but also to make sure that we have representatives of communities as members of our staff and our administration,” Serier said.

  • Providing safety through community policing. “My personal beliefs about community policing go back to my earliest practices as a patrol officer,” said Serier, who was previously an officer in Stillwater, Eagan and St. Paul and has 26 years of law enforcement experience overall. “Without engaging community … we are just simply not effective.”

  • Collaborating with public safety, community and justice partners. Serier said he’s passionate about “correcting the unintentional detention of many people who get stuck in the criminal justice system who have mental health issues.”

NO APPLICATION PROCESS

Another person observing Serier’s interview was someone who’d expressed interest in the sheriff job to county commissioners: Laura Goodman, a public-safety professional.

“This is about a process that was closed,” Goodman said after the meeting. “… It’s disappointing for me as a citizen of Ramsey County, it’s disappointing for a wide variety of diverse, highly talented candidates that could have been considered, that the public could have considered.”

St. Paul STRONG, an open government group, has also been critical of the process, saying whoever gets the sheriff job will have an advantage come election time. Serier said Tuesday that he didn’t know whether he would run for sheriff in 2018.

County Board chair Victoria Reinhardt said she thought the board had carried out a good process.

“I think one of the real gems of what we have been able to do over the past month or so is really define what we expect and the accountability that goes with that,” she said.