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Jail staff will sign form; not pleased with discipline recourse

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Jail employees are worried that they could face criminal charges due to the way the drug-free workplace policy is written

By Thomas Barr

      SHEPHERDSVILLE – Employees of the Bullitt County Detention Center have until Friday to sign their content forms for the new drug- and alcohol-free workplace policies and procedures.

     The document must be signed by Friday, Feb. 15, or else.

     But the question remains what consequences might be faced by those who don’t sign the acknowledgement forms.

     Attorney Eric Farris, speaking on behalf of jailer Martha Knox, tried to gain an exemption for the jail staff members for signing the policy document. Not opposed to having drug screening, Farris said the current policy could put detention employees in a position of being charged with official misconduct.

     The problem is that language in the policy states that county employees cannot be in possession of any controlled substance.

     While the EMS, sheriff’s office and fire officials have exemptions from that portion of the policy if it is in the normal course of their job, Farris said the jail employees do not.

     In their duties, Farris said jail employees often find contraband – illegal items, including drugs – being smuggled into the detention center.

     He said Knox supports the zero tolerance of drug or alcohol use on the job; however, the attorney was concerned that anyone signing the consent form could be disciplined by a technicality even if they were performing their duties.

     “Jailer Knox is committed to the alcohol and drug free policy and already has such a policy in effect,” Farris said following the meeting.

     Farris, who answered an inquiry by magistrate Ruthie Ashbaugh by stating that he was not retained by Knox but was only supporting her position as a favor to her, added that the detention employees are supervised and hired by the jailer, not fiscal court.

     Ashbaugh said that everyone knew there was contraband that gets into the jail and she wasn’t aware of any penalty under the provisions of the county policies.

     The attorney agreed but he said it would be a criminal offense of official misconduct if the policy was violated.

     Ashbaugh didn’t favor giving an exemption because there was a fundamental difference. While the sheriff’s office takes drugs off the street, Ashbaugh said the jail staff just takes it off of a person.

     Farris said that didn’t make sense. Both agencies are working to get drugs off the streets or from circulation.

     The only thing Knox is looking to do, according to Farris, is to make sure her employees are not disciplined for doing their jobs.

     After the drugs are found and removed, Farris said they must be stored and then transported to the Kentucky State Police crime lab. The jail employees are required to do that so that the chain of custody, which is a part of the legal process, remains secure.

     Farris cited 13 people charged with promoting contraband in 2012. County attorney Monica Meredith Robinson said she took the time to have the circuit clerk’s staff look up that information and there were only five cases filed by the jailer.

     Not wishing to contradict numbers of cases, Farris said the solution is a simple one – either give the jail staff the right to not sign the consent forms or rewrite the policy.

     Robinson said that she felt better with the exemptions given the sheriff’s office and EMS because those agencies already have policies and procedures to guide them. The jail does not.

     She said that the policies and procedures worked on with Knox last year didn’t include the proper handling of drugs and evidence. That could be and should be done.

     Robinson went through more numbers on the cases filed on contraband and the number which were not indicted once they got to the grand jury.

     “My goal is to make cases rock solid,” said Robinson.

     However, Farris said the entire situation “begins to smell of politics.”

     He hoped the fact that the jailer is a Democrat and the rest of the elected officials were Republicans didn’t play a role in the discussion.

     Under KRS Chapter 71, Farris said the jailer has total control over the facility and staff.

     “If you want to make a mountain out of this mole hill, we certainly can,” said Farris.

     He felt it was a simple request to exclude the jail staff. This would have nothing to do with random drug and alcohol tests, which are already done.

     Instead, he was just concerned that employees down the road could have this situation used against them.

     A push for such a policy results from the county’s ability to save money on its workers’ compensation insurance. With the drug-free policy, the county has already received a $13,000 rebate check on its policy.

     Magistrate John Bradshaw opened up another line of questioning as to how contraband can get into the jail.

     Without getting into too many specifics, both Farris and Robinson explained some of the various ways people could get illegal items into the detention center.

     Bradshaw said he could see maybe a few jail employees handling drugs but not all of them. Farris said with the various schedules and with workers being in different parts of the facility, that would be difficult to determine who should be exempt.

     Farris said he was concerned that the court members didn’t understand the issue at hand, especially when the question over contraband surfaced.

     Deputy county judge Lisa Craddock said the letter to the employees originally talking about the consent form did not mention anything about disciplinary action, as Farris stated previously. However, an e-mail sent to the directors did mention that action could be taken.

     Farris admitted fault in confusing the two issues but the fact remained that under the current policy, jail employees were at risk of being disciplined.

     During the first round of requests, only one jail employee had signed the consent form. However, Farris said all the jail employees would sign and return the consent form. They will also include a cover letter voicing their support of the policy in general but not with the terms. The letter will also outline that the jail staff will continue to handle contraband as it has in the past.

     “The policy itself is great,” said Farris. And he said Robinson’s suggestion to take out all exemptions and have the individual agency policies be the governing document was also a good idea.

     But Jimmy Stivers, foreman of the road department, whose employees all signed the consent form, questioned whether they could also be in trouble.

     At times, Stivers said the road department staff has worked with the federal marshals to unload and to destroy illegal drugs. For years, the drugs had been burned behind the road department.

     Robinson said she wasn’t aware of that situation. She knew the sheriff’s office took its drugs to an incinerator in Mount Washington.

     After a 10-minute break, the court members came back to unanimously vote to keep the policy as it is.    

     After a later closed door executive session on litigation, the court unanimously voted to have Roberts’ office send another request to jail employees to sign the consent forms by Feb. 15.

     Following the meeting, Roberts deferred a question about possible disciplinary action to the magistrates.

     Ashbaugh said if the situation arises from an employee not signing the form, she assumed it would be brought up at a fiscal court meeting.

     Bradshaw said the policy would be enforced and he assumed any action would be up to the county judge’s office.

     Magistrate Joe Laswell had no comment.

     Farris said that although there is no disciplinary action in the policy for non-conformance, it was admitted that the judge’s memo did state that there could be some.

     “However, only the jailer has authority to discipline her employees, by statute,” said Farris.

     If fiscal court handed down any disciplinary action, Farris felt the employee would have legal recourse against the court and its members individually for acting outside their authority.