Walla Walla County OK’s sheriff’s reorganization plan

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WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla County commissioners Monday approved a proposed reorganization of appointed officers and staff members in the Sheriff’s Office and let Sheriff John Turner decide what those officers will be paid.

The resolution, unanimously approved by commissioners Jim Johnson, Perry Dozier and Greg Tompkins, allows Turner to set salaries for the five positions “as he sees fit” as long as he stays within his current budget.

But they also directed county Auditor Karen Martin to prepare a budget amendment to reduce the sheriff’s budget by $13,200, the amount Turner said his proposed reorganization would save in salaries.

Commissioners did not approve a job description and recommended salary incentive for the undersheriff’s position, saying that position would have to be addressed at a later date.

Monday’s resolution capped a sometimes acrid debate that began earlier this month when Turner brought his reorganization plan before commissioners. One issue that raised objections from other elected officials was a proposed increase in the salary of Chief Administrative Deputy Shanda Zessin from about $66,900 a year to $80,669, a 20.4 percent increase. The increase would have made Zessin’s salary equal to two other appointed positions, Chief Operations Deputy John King and the Chief Corrections Deputy Keilen Harmon.

The reorganization plan also added the positions of administrative secretary and increased hours for an administrative assistant position. Those job descriptions were approved in the motion Monday.

Under state law, Turner has up to five positions he can appoint based on the size of the sheriff’s office.

“My resolution, the motion,” Tompkins said, “is to authorize (Turner) to set the salaries as he sees fit to give him that authority just like we sometimes give department heads the authority to sign contracts — and only the five positions he requested.”

In a memo to commissioners and in discussions with them, Turner said the reorganization would leave the undersheriff’s position unfilled. That post was recently vacated by the resignation of Undersheriff Edward Freyer. Turner proposed to use the money for the undersheriff’s salary to fund Zessin’s salary increase as well as pay for the new administrative secretary post and increase the pay for the administrative assistant position.

At Monday’s meeting, Turner reiterated that the proposed reorganization would allow him to add 56 clerical labor hours per week to help people in administrative service while saving $13,000 per year. He also defended the increase in Zessin’s salary, saying she was doing “probably 50 percent more” work than former Undersheriff Carole Lepiane, who had been appointed to that position at the start of 1987 and served until June 2009 when she left due to health reasons.

“So the proposal is that 20 percent (pay raise) to do 50 percent more work,” Turner said. “And whether or not that’s appropriate or reasonable really isn’t my decision.”

In response to a question from an audience member who asked, “What happens to that $13,000 that’s saved?,” Turner said it would be within his discretion to use any leftover funds for other purposes, such as paying for additional training.

But county Auditor Karen Martin told commissioners that Turner’s comments showed his proposed savings were not savings at all.

“It’s not actually going to be a $13,000 savings because he’s planning on turning around and spending it later in the year. That’s what I just heard,” she said. Martin also reiterated the complaint she and other elected officials have made that the proposed salary for Zessin was out of proportion to her job.

“I would also still make the comment that this is an office manager’s position,” Martin said. “(Zessin’s) current title is office manager and I don’t see that her position warrants any more (pay). Currently she’s getting paid more than our chief deputies are getting paid and it’s not about that, per se, but ... if he wants her to do the job of an undersheriff ... then appoint her as undersheriff ....”

Turner started to reply, saying Martin’s remarks were “incorrect and inaccurate,” but he was stopped by Johnson, who then gave him 30 seconds to speak.

“It depends on how you define savings,” Turner said. “There will be $13,000 savings in salaries that will allow us to do other things within the sheriff’s office. If that $13,000 is a deal breaker, we can put it toward cars (or) we can give it back ...”

He also insisted Zessin’s job title “per the personnel department” is chief administrative deputy.

As he left Monday’s meeting, Turner initially said he had no comment to a Union-Bulletin reporter, but then added: “We’re going to go back to our office and figure out what we’re going to do. I appreciate the commissioners’ considerations (and) I appreciate the thought and effort that went into it.”

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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