© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
To contact us with news tips, story ideas or other related information, e-mail newsstaff@ideastream.org.

Budish Pushes Back On Cuyahoga County Council Call For Sheriff's Autonomy

Cuyahoga County administrative headquarters. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cuyahoga County administrative headquarters

Updated: 2:07 p.m., Thrusday, March 4, 2021

During a meeting to review of a proposed ordinance amendment Thursday, Cuyahoga County council members stood firm on changes that would limit the county executive’s influence over the county sheriff, in spite of pushback from Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.

County council is considering changes to the ordinance that defines the obligations of the county sheriff, including removing language that says the Cuyahoga County sheriff employs and supervises department staff “with the approval of the county executive.”

District 1 Councilwoman Nan Baker said the recent confirmation hearing for Christopher Viland, during which he indicated the county executive’s interpretation of who has oversight over the sheriff conflicted with council’s, showed the need to prevent future executives from overstepping their authority.

“There is no way to interpret it other than how we have it stated here,” Baker said Thursday. “And that is, I believe, why we are here today.”

The vote to confirm Viland as Cuyahoga County sheriff is scheduled for March 9.

Council is arguing the sheriff should be able to operate independently of the county executive and come to council to address any issues. Council members say the sheriff should be treated differently by the executive because no other position requires eight votes from council before being fired and that should be clear to any sheriff who takes the job.

But Budish and his administration say executive oversight is needed to address problems as they arise at the jail and that the ordinance is unnecessary.

“The charter that was passed gives the council the authority that would give the sheriff the opportunity to say, ‘I’m not afraid of getting fired because I can always go over to council and I’ll make my independent decision,’” said Bill Mason, Budish’s chief of staff, Thursday.

Budish himself this week has made the case that the county chief of staff and chief of public safety have worked closely with the sheriff over the past year to address jail issues, including overcrowding and the threat of a coronavirus outbreak.

“The blame would go to the executive, but the executive would have no power to provide more training or provide more resources, because this proposal would take all the authority away from the executive,” Budish told ideastream Wednesday.

His team has worked together with the sheriff’s office to bring down the jail population during the pandemic and hire additional staff, Budish said, and that kind of cooperation should be allowed to continue, not hampered by changes to the law.

“The jail is probably one of the better ones in the state right now,” Budish said. “We’ve made huge improvements.”

But the effort to change the responsibilities and obligations of the county sheriff follow criticisms and problems at the county jail in recent years, including a slew of lawsuits, multiple  deaths and  a scathing report by the U.S. Marshals office on the jail’s conditions – after which former  Sheriff Clifford Pinkney told council he wasn’t involved in decisions at the facility, including the hiring of jail administrator Ken Mills or the launch of an investigation into former warden Eric Ivey.

After the hearings with Pinkney, 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 authority over the sheriff.

County Council already made changes to prevent a county executive from removing a sheriff, Budish said, which he went along with as a compromise. But the additional change would be unworkable and impractical for the county, he said.

“It seems to be working well right now. I don’t know why there’s the urge to change things,” Budish said. “This proposal would encroach on the executive branch by the legislative branch, and that’s why I believe it’s unconstitutional as well.”

The county executive needs to have the ability to intervene, Budish said, including requiring training or discipline in cases of excessive force, efforts to reduce the jail population during periods of overcrowding.

“The only way to create a totally independent sheriff is to make the position elected. While that would be better than Council’s proposal, it would be a step backward from the county reform adopted by the voters,” Budish said. “The current structure works. We have an excellent candidate waiting to start his job.”