Jailhouse Brawl 

The sheriff and the mayor's office go at it

The sheriff and the mayor's office go at it

Who knew the expansion of jail space could be so political? Sheriff Daron Hall has clashed repeatedly in the press with Mayor Bill Purcell's office this week over the projected cost overruns of a jail expansion project. In the process, an arcane debate over size of jail cells and the role of a project consultant presents what may be the most significant challenge by a credible officeholder to the mayor since his election in 1999.

"They are very controlling," Hall tells the Scene of the mayor's office. "Everything goes through their finance department. But I'm different than a department head. I'm an elected official and I'm the one who should be making the decisions on corrections. Not a consultant out of New York."

The theme of Hall's criticism—that the mayor and Metro Finance director David Manning relentlessly micromanage Metro department heads—has been aired plenty of times before by government officials. But the criticisms are usually voiced in hushed, off-the-record conversations with lowly reporters who can't write what they hear. Enter Hall, who is happy to air his dissent publicly because he doesn't want to be blamed for a $14 million costoverrun in the jail's expansion. (As sheriff, the jail is Hall's responsibility.)

"I don't want to be held accountable for something I can't control, which is David Manning's consultant," Hall says.

That consultant, the New York-based Don Stoughton, developed the plans for the $33.4 million jail expansion project. Hall says Stoughton did not know what Metro really needed. Case in point: Hall says that when he first reviewed the plans shortly after he was elected sheriff two years ago, they did not include expanding the male section of the facility. He told the mayor that projections forecast a rise in both the male and female inmate populations. Purcell agreed to expand the male section as well, but, according to Hall, didn't ask for the additional funding until this year.

There have been other problems. After Stoughton's plans were sent out to bid, Hall learned that the project did not meet standards set by the Tennessee Corrections Institute, on whose board the sheriff sits. Among other things, the cells were about two square feet too small. Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips counters, in a debate not likely to rival the Lincoln-Douglas showdown, that the original jail size was in line with American Corrections Association requirements. But Hall counters that the American Corrections Association primarily oversees prisons whose cells don't have to be as spacious. Inmates in prisons, as opposed to jails, have more opportunity to exercise and socialize and can thus live in less roomier confines.

To settle that particular dispute, the mayor's office gave Hall what he wanted and changed the plans to include larger cell sizes. But that drove up the price of the project, mayoral officials say. "I'm not sure why he's looking for someone else to blame. We used a set of standards he didn't accept, so we said OK and granted his request," Phillips says.

Hall maintains that the crux of the problem is that the consultant is working more or less out of the finance department and not with the sheriff. In fact, the consultant, who had worked with Manning on state projects when Manning previously worked in state government, had been working on the jail plans before Hall was even elected.

"My point is that we should have been involved in a relationship with the consultant, rather than the consultant and the finance department having a relationship and saying, 'This is how it's going to be.' "

Seemingly baffled by Hall's discontent, Phillips maintains that the mayor's office has listened to the sheriff's requests. "He's elected to run the jail. He's our corrections guy so the mayor is following his advice. We're a little surprised that it's been a conflict."

As to the qualifications of the consultant himself, Phillips says that Stoughton's experience with prisons as opposed to jails is not an issue. "He was brought in in late 1999 and early 2000 because the federal judge says he was tired of waiting for the sheriff's office to correct inadequacies and that's when the state suggested that [Stoughton] help come up with a plan to get us out of the federal order. He must know something about corrections."

Interestingly, when U.S. District Judge Thomas Higgins finally ended the jail system's supervision two years ago, he made it a point to credit Purcell for enlisting the consultant to confront some of the jail's problems. Higgins seemed to have less good things to say about Hall's predecessor, Gayle Ray. Later, during a hotly contested Democratic primary for sheriff with Daron Hall, whom Ray supported, the mayor endorsed former Metro Council member Leo Waters. Hall went on to win soundly and now is being talked about as a possible mayoral contender himself.

Hall says, however, that he has no ambition to be mayor. He just wants to run the jails, a job that the mayor's leadership style doesn't particularly accommodate. "They're controlling and it's the way they choose to run the government, but they don't get to remove themselves from the responsibility if there are questions and concerns."

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