By RONNIE ELLIS / CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT - A Franklin Circuit Court judge will decide whether an inter-local agreement between Boyd and Carter counties to pursue a regional jail is simply a way to divest the jailers in those counties of their constitutional duties.
A Kentucky law enacted in 1994 allows multiple counties to operate a regional jail collaboratively with an administrator and a regional jail authority board representing the participating counties and the jailers from those counties. Because the jailer is a constitutional office, it cannot be eliminated, although the duties of the office can be prescribed to include things other than administering jail operations.
But it is not clear if the law allows two counties to operate their existing jails under the management of a regional jail authority.
Jim Deckard, the attorney representing the Kentucky Jailers Association in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the agreement between Boyd and Carter counties, told Judge Phillip Shepherd at Monday’s hearing that the agreement is “the first instance of a regional jail authority seeking to operate two jails in two counties.”
Shepherd asked Deckard and Scott White, attorney for the two counties, precisely what problem the counties wish to address or alleviate through a regional jail authority.
Deckard responded that his clients see no problem the arrangement would solve and in fact, he said, it would cost Carter County an $800,000-a-year contract with the federal government to house federal prisoners, citing a U.S. Marshals Service letter stating the contract would be in jeopardy.
“We believe this is a political dispute between the county judge and the county jailer,” Deckard told Shepherd.
Carter County Judge-Executive Charles Wallace, who along with Boyd County Judge-Executive William “Bud” Stevens attended the hearing, said afterward he’d “seen no such letter” from the Marshals Service or anyone else.
But Carter County Jailer R.W. Boggs said the letter was addressed to him, Wallace and Carter County Fiscal Court and had been discussed in open fiscal court meetings.
White told Shepherd there really isn’t anything for the court to decide, that the inter-local agreement at this point presumes nothing other than the two counties wish to secure state approval to pursue the concept of a regional jail, and, until it determines how to do that, to continue operating the two county jails.
(The state Department of Local Government must approve such agreements for regional jails but in this case DLG has suspended its review pending Shepherd’s ruling.)
“There is no actual controversy between the two parties,” White told Shepherd. “The judge-executives found it in the best interests of their constituents to enter into this agreement. It is a political question rather than a justiciable question.”
“Your point is that until the authority is operating, there is nothing known about what will be done with the Carter or Boyd county jails?” Shepherd asked White, who answered: “Exactly.”
Deckard argued the 1994 statute presumes the multiple counties would operate one regional jail, though it doesn’t specifically say that.
Shepherd said it is logical to assume the law’s “purpose is to consolidate.” Boyd County, he said, could send its prisoners to be housed in Carter County’s jail through a different inter-local agreement without a regional jail authority, an arrangement that exists between several counties in Kentucky.
White conceded that option existed, but said he sw nothing in the 1994 law that would “oblige us to shut down facilities,” meaning it does not prohibit a regional jail authority from operating the two jails.
Shepherd said the statute isn’t designed to “allow counties to circumnavigate local jailer authority simply to divest the jailer of his constitutional authority.”
Deckard said afterward he believes that is, in fact, the purpose of the agreement because Wallace and Boggs are at odds. Boggs agreed.
“I’ve said from the beginning this is nothing but a political power grab,” said Boggs, a registered Republican. He said Wallace, a Democrat, would like to “get rid of a lot of people, especially me.”
Both Wallace and Stevens denied any political motive in seeking the inter-local agreement or a regional jail authority.
Shepherd said the unusual circumstances in this case present “a difficult question but I’ll do my best to plow through it and give you an order on it.”
He did not specify a timeline for issuing the order.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.