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Cuyahoga County Council Dispute With Budish Delays Vote On New Sheriff

The sheriff has authority over Cuyahoga County's troubled jail. In 2019, council sought to free the sheriff from interference in jail management through a charter amendment. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
photo of cuyahoga county jail

Updated: 4:50 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021

Confirmation of the new Cuyahoga County sheriff, Christopher Viland, hit a snag Monday when details about who he’ll report to and his office’s independence raised concerns from several county council members at a committee hearing.

By Tuesday’s full council meeting, Council President Pernel Jones decided to hold the vote on Viland’s nomination until March 9. Jones asked the county law director to write an ordinance spelling out the sheriff’s independence more clearly.

“I want to stress that this decision has nothing to do with the candidate Chris Viland, but has everything to do with the organizational questions that were discussed in yesterday’s committee,” Jones said.

Council members at Monday’s confirmation hearing supported County Executive Armond Budish’s pick for sheriff, but when Viland said he was told during the interview process he would report to Chief of Public Safety and Justice Affairs Robert Coury, who then reports to Budish, council members slammed on the brakes.

“If confirmed, you’re the sheriff of Cuyahoga County. You do your own budget. You handle your employees. You answer to nobody,” Councilman Mike Gallagher, chairman the committee that oversees public safety and the jail, told Viland.

Behind council’s questions and concerns is the deep dysfunction at the county jail that has come to light in the last several years. After several deaths at the jail and a scathing report by the U.S. Marshals office on conditions there, former Sheriff Clifford Pinkney told council he wasn’t involved in decisions at the facility, including the hiring of jail administrator Ken Mills or whether to launch an investigation into former warden Eric Ivey.

In response, council considered moving to an elected sheriff, but instead put a charter amendment on the ballot in 2019 that gave the sheriff hiring authority at the jail and county council control authority over the sheriff.

“You’re the guy in charge of that jail,” Councilman Scott Tuma told Viland during Monday’s hearing. “You have council as a backup in the event you feel uncomfortable or you feel that something is not right, you can come to council and have a hearing.”

The discrepancy between what Viland was told during the interview process – that he would report to Coury and Budish – and what council told him during the confirmation hearing made Viland noticeably uncomfortable.

“I will say that it is very apparent to me that there is a conflict between what the executive’s office has told me and what I am hearing today,” Viland said. “It would be my request that any of those conflicts be resolved and decided between the two of you.”

In a Tuesday statement following the delay, a spokeswoman for Budish acknowledged the dispute as different interpretations of current law.

“Under the charter and the county code, the Sheriff directs the operations of the Sheriff’s Department, but must have the approval of the County Executive for certain management decisions,” Mary Louise Madigan said. “Members of County Council have a different view of the law.”

Madigan added the county executive will work with the law department and council to come up with a resolution.

Viland was Chief of Police in Solon from 2011 to 2019, and then became Cleveland Division of Police’s first Inspector General. In a little more than a year, Viland produced a series of reports on bringing Cleveland police’s on use of force, vehicle pursuit and others topics into compliance with national best practices.

Viland also holds a law degree from Cleveland State University’s Marshall College of Law.

At the Monday confirmation hearing, he described a progressive approach to law enforcement, focusing on transparency and plans for policies on use of force and bias-free policing among other areas that reflect best practices.

“The community has entrusted us with the power to investigate, the power to detain, the power to impact reputations, to search and to deprive people of their freedoms,” Viland said. “Those are powers that are given by the people in return only for the obligation that they be utilized justly, fairly and appropriately.”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.