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Sun., Aug. 30
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Dithering won’t fix problems between city and county


This story begins in 1992. Derek Jeter was not yet a Yankee. I was editing a daily county seat paper almost four hours south of here. Staff writer Larry Cole was covering Mayor Jeffrey Graham’s City Hall. And the county and the city entered into a simple intermunicipal agreement to jointly use the new Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building to temporarily house people awaiting arraignment who had been accused of a crime by city police.

In the succeeding years, everything but that last fact changed. Over the past 22 years, the use of the PSB’s holding cells — which were designed into the building for just this purpose — for unarraigned prisoners, went unnoticed and unremarked. Then, suddenly, everything changed. In January, as the state Commission of Correction was auditing staffing at the jail, the county was informed that under New York Codes Section 500-C, the sheriff could not supervise prisoners who had not yet been arraigned. The law doesn’t address mingling these suspects with the general population, which would make some sense. It bans only the sheriff’s supervision of these prisoners.

And this old law has proved to be so unworkable that 14 counties have sought, and received, exemptions from it under Municipal Home Rule legislation. That means that 22 percent of the state’s counties have sought and received a pass on this archaic law.

With the state’s notification the county was in violation of this law, despite 22 years of snoozing along without a care for this arcane regulation, it became apparent that something should be done to remedy the problem. One might think that, given the 14 exemptions already granted, the county and city might seek an exemption for Jefferson County. We have a nice handful of state legislators ready to propose home rule legislation the county needs. While this isn’t simple, it isn’t that hard.

So is that what is happening? Well, no. As is often the case with government, what seems on the surface to be logical gets twisted and turned and formed into something that Rube Goldberg would shake his head at. And so it is with this situation.

We were first told that the city knew nothing of the problem until Sheriff John Burns wrote a letter giving the city until April 15 — roughly two weeks at that time — to get its prisoners out of the PSB. That is to say, out of the building city taxpayers helped pay to build.

Then we found out that, really, the city and the county had talked about this in February, and officials of both governments were working on it. Both appeared to be shocked — shocked! — when the sheriff put the city on such a short leash. So the problem has had at least three months to gestate, without any coherent solution found.

I say this because no coherent solution has been proposed. Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, has promised to offer a bill that will race around behind the problem and bite it squarely in the cheeks. Her plan: require more speedy arraignments. The merits of the plan: virtually nil.

First, the state Legislature starts to open a bag of cutworms when it starts messing around with the judiciary; the state Constitution frowns on one branch dithering in the other’s business, and court scheduling is best left up to, well, the courts. And, based on statements from sitting judges, everyone is already dedicated to not letting arraignments linger longer than they must. So a law requiring them to do what they’re pretty much already doing makes no sense at all.

A far more sensible solution would be to amend state law that has already been amended to meet the needs of 22 percent of the state’s counties. It would appear to be especially relevant to work this plan since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is so dedicated to shared services; what better way to do so than to make regional municipal jails work the way the cities and counties need them to? That has a considerable logical foundation (abandon all hope...).

Sitting in the middle of this glass house, tossing rocks at the walls, is Sheriff Burns. A self-declared lame duck who won’t seek re-election, he is the one who set the short fuse on this explosion by arbitrarily picking April 15 as the date the city turns back into a pumpkin. And he is the one who convinced Mrs. Russell that she should be tinkering with the judges’ schedules instead of really trying to fix an archaic statute. And he has whined to her that exempting the country from the law will force him to ship even more prisoners to outside jails because of the overcrowding at the PSB. In the sheriff’s mind, this is really all about making life easier for John Burns for the next eight months.

Clearly, the law needs to brought into the 21st century. Gov. Cuomo should be leading the way and north country state legislators should be signing on to the legislation, if not outright proposing it. While there are hurdles to clear, they aren’t exactly building sized. Instead of standing around and wringing their hands, our city and county leaders ought to be helping our state legislators get it done. And if Sheriff Burns doesn’t like it, he is certainly free to retire before his term ends.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at

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