Jail levy committee, county at odds
The committee established to monitor the use of jail operating levy funds has clashed with county employees over what information committee members need to do their job.
The Jail Operating Citizens Advisory Committee was created in 2014 as a provision of the levy passed in May of that year, which created a new property tax to fund Columbia County Jail operations. The levy was renewed by voters in November 2016 and will last until June 2021.
Now, as the committee has started discussions around drafting a new levy spending report, concerns over the depth of available financial data have re-emerged.
"I don't feel that we get sufficient detail in the financial reports to do our due diligence in ensuring that the money is going where it is supposed to go," said Jim Gibson, a committee member who ran for sheriff in November against Dave Brown, now JOCAC vice-chair, and Brian Pixley, now sheriff.
Gibson has repeatedly sought detailed records showing the sources of payments to employees who split their time between the jail and other Sheriff's Office operations.
Sheriff Pixley said he believes the committee has been provided adequate information on jail finances.
"They are receiving the same information that previous JOCAC committees have received and have been able to utilize without problem," Pixley wrote in an email to the Spotlight.
"I think that the committee looked at what they were given and, based on what they were given, they probably made a good faith effort" to evaluate spending, Brown said. "But if you don't know where the funds are being spent, and no one can show that to you, I think we have an issue."
"I think there's a ton of questions that should have been asked a long time ago," Gibson said.
"We're talking finances, it shouldn't be that difficult to create a report," he added. "To me, they're just intermingling those two budgets [jail and Sheriff's Office] too much to know for sure where the money is going."
A similar probe came from Tyler Miller, a former reserve deputy in the Sheriff's Office, who filed his own records request in early April. The wide-ranging request sought thorough accounting records and purchase orders, receipts, timesheets and pay stubs. The county records custodian told Miller they could fulfill that request — for a fee of $12,389.65.
Committee Chair Garrett Lines, who has been on the committee since its inception, said committee members need to ask more specific questions rather than making general requests for more information.
"When we ask questions (to county and jail administrators), we get answers. We've never been given the runaround," Lines said.
At the March JOCAC meeting, Pixley told Gibson that requests for more records would have to come through the committee chair. However, meeting minutes show that the chair at that time, Richard Lager, hadn't attended a meeting since November 2017.
Participation has dwindled over the five-year history of the 10-member committee. With empty seats and poor attendance, the majority of the committee's meetings over the past year have failed to draw a quorum.
But at the committee's meeting earlier this month, the committee saw new faces. Clatskanie Mayor Bob Brajcich and Deer Island resident Mary Anne Anderson both joined, leaving only two of the 10 seats empty.
High turnover has slowed the committee's work, according to Lines.
"There's a lot of new members who don't know what the job is or what they're supposed to be doing," Lines said. "The other problem is that they don't have a permanent financial officer for the county, so we can't even ask questions."
Brown said that during his 2018 campaign for sheriff, he heard repeated concerns about how levy funds were being used.
"I said during my campaign that if I were to be elected, I would most certainly want an in-depth forensic audit of jail finances ... And I still want that done," Brown said, emphasizing that he could only speak for himself, not for the committee.
To Brown, ensuring that levy funds are used properly is worth the cost of an audit.
"All I want to see is that information is put out there for the public to make a decision on and for the committee to put in a report," Brown said. "I'm not going to take anybody's word for it. I want to see it on paper."