Donnie Barrera says he loves being sheriff of Highland County, and most parts of the job have been what he expected. But there have been some bumps along the way, and the changes he is trying to institute – especially as they relate to cost savings – have resulted in pushback from some deputies, including the filing of grievances.
Critics of the sheriff have been quietly complaining about several of Barrera’s actions and resulting outcomes, from charges of over-utilizing volunteer deputies rather than assigning duties to paid staff, requiring deputies to park their cruisers at the sheriff’s office when off duty, seeing several deputies resign their positions, and even a perceived drop in the number of felony arrests presented for grand jury indictments.
But for every criticism, Barrera counters with statistics and documentation that seem to disprove the claims, or at least show that the various issues are little different than similar matters that happened under his immediate predecessors in the sheriff’s office.
For example, after Barrera took office in November 2014, his department was responsible for 21 grand jury cases in December, 17 in January, 21 in February, 14 in March and 17 in April. But in May that number dropped to just eight, followed by six in June and another six in July. The records were provided by the county prosecutor’s office after a request from The Times-Gazette, which reports on grand jury indictments each month.
But Barrera said the drop-off in grand jury cases in the past three months is hardly indicative of a department tapering off in enforcing the law, and is also not something over which he has total control, since the prosecutor decides which cases to present to the grand jury.
In fact, he said the total of 1,481 arrests his office has made in the first six months of 2015 – including felonies and misdemeanors – are the highest for the same period of time in any of the last six years, according to arrest records. The number of arrests for the same period of time last year was 1,338, compared to 1,136 in 2013, 1,192 in 2012, 935 in 2011 and 1,380 in 2010, according to statistics provided by the sheriff.
Barrera also provided statistics showing that his office made 174 felony arrests in the first quarter of 2015, compared to just 77 during the same period a year ago, when Richard Warner was sheriff.
Barrera said that even if his office’s grand jury cases are down lately, it’s a temporary situation that could change quickly when the results of ongoing investigations are wrapped up. He said 30 or more cases could be presented to the prosecutor’s office for presentation to the grand jury stemming from investigations which simply are not completed yet.
Anneka Collins, the county prosecutor, said the felony arrest numbers provided by the sheriff refer to each separate charge that is brought, not the number of people arrested. For example, one arrest can result in multiple charges. But she acknowledged Barrera’s point that not all felony arrests are presented to the grand jury.
“I agree with that,” she said. Collins said sometimes there are search and seizure issues that will not hold up in court, or more interviewing that needs to be done.
“Some we send back with letters to the officers that there is something missing, or they need to do more investigation. Sometimes I never get a response,” she said.
But she said she currently does not have many cases fitting that description – “less than 10 cases in my drawer right now, not all from the sheriff’s office” – and sometimes cases are not presented because family members decline to pursue them or refuse to cooperate after a period of time goes by.
Barrera spent Thursday morning in a grievance hearing, and said later he thinks the disputes with deputies are close to being settled. While he is prohibited from discussing specifics, he acknowledged that one issue revolves around using volunteer special deputies to work duties that the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) union believes should be assigned instead to regular paid deputies.
“It’s in the process of getting worked out,” said Barrera on Thursday afternoon.
Nick Thompson, the former Hillsboro police chief, has been working long hours as a special deputy, mostly without pay. Barrera recently told the Highland County Tea Party that Thompson is volunteering 40 to 50 hours a week.
Pay records from the county auditor’s office requested by The Times-Gazette show that Thompson has occasionally been paid, but not often, and not always with tax dollars. For example, Thompson was paid $75 in one two-week pay period, and $150 in another for working special details, but the pay came from the “Police Rotary, Special Detail” fund, which utilizes dollars provided by the organizations, such as schools that request coverage for events.
Thompson has been paid with tax dollars for a maximum of 16 hours in a two-week pay period three times since February. For other two-week pay periods, he was paid for as little as 2.5 hours, four hours and eight hours for special duty.
Barrera said Thompson is not paid for the majority of hours that he works, and Thompson is saving tax dollars by volunteering his time on road patrol duty. The FOP claims that such scheduling is a violation of its contract.
Another issue that some deputies have complained about is a recent edict by Barrera requiring them to return their cruisers to the Highland County Justice Center at the conclusion of their shifts, rather than being permitted to take the vehicles home with them. Some deputies have privately said the order was in retaliation for filing grievances.
Barrera said that’s not the case, and most of the things he is doing are an effort to preserve the budget and protect the jobs of as many deputies as he can.
“I’m trying to avoid a layoff, to maintain the money to keep their jobs,” he said.
The sheriff said parking the cruisers at the sheriff’s office saves $1,000 to $1,200 a month, and added that he is following the same procedure himself, parking his own cruiser at the office rather than taking it home.
Barrera said the six deputies who have left the sheriff’s office since he took over is little different than typical personnel changes from year to year. He said records show that nine deputies departed under Warner during the former sheriff’s one year in office, and 72 deputies left during former Sheriff Ron Ward’s 14-plus years in office – about five per year.
Barrera said that in his case, most deputies left for better jobs, and all but one are still on the rolls as special deputies if needed.
Barrera thinks his efforts to find creative ways to save money are at the heart of some of the controversies. He said he has cut overtime by 60 percent.
At last month’s Highland County Tea Party meeting, the sheriff said he has eliminated deputies having taxpayer-supplied cell phones, saving $3,000 a year. He was also able to use a Furtherance of Justice Fund grant to purchase two used vehicles from the Ohio State Highway Patrol for transporting inmates to other prisons, and had them painted for free, he said.
He said he recently negotiated a new food contract for inmates that reduced per-meal pricing from $2.39 to $1.79. He also cut a new deal with a different company that will allow the department to make a 35 percent commission from the inmate commissary, up from 25 percent.
Barrera said Thursday that his efforts to control the budget are behind most of the complaints coming from a handful of deputies and a few people outside his office. He declined to put the blame on lingering ill feelings from the special sheriff’s election last year in which he handily defeated Warner, or from a year before that when Warner won the GOP political appointment to the office following Ward’s resignation.
But he said he is trying to establish new protocols that may be difficult to adjust to for some. And he expressed concern about protecting existing jobs, pointing to deputies who have small children and who would struggle if they lost their jobs.
“I have maybe a different management style,” he said. “It’s different, or maybe people aren’t used to being managed. Yes, we needed structure. I’m not saying anything bad, but I worked the road here for 25 years. I’m trying to bring change to the office in a positive way, for the citizens of Highland County.”
He said he wants his staff to serve the public in a professional manner, and then “go home happy and safe.”
The sheriff, who said he is still working seven days a week, said, “We have a good group here that works hard. It’s a special breed that works here. We’re fortunate.”
But he said that with every new administration comes change that typically “meets with some resistance.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.