Correction Board heeds governor, fires Community Correction director for seeking to increase budget | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Correction Board heeds governor, fires Community Correction director for seeking to increase budget

Posted By on Thu, Jul 19, 2018 at 12:07 PM

SHEILA SHARP
  • SHEILA SHARP
Jason Pederson of KATV reports on Twitter that the state Board of Correction has voted to fire Sheila Sharp as Community Correction director. UPDATE: She says she was sacked because of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's unhappiness with her request for spending increases. She said his interference violated a law intended to have equal input from both the executive and legislative branch on agency budgets
.

The firing followed a two-hour executive session. Sharp distributed a letter saying the firing was rooted in a budget disagreement (she wanted more than the governor wanted to spend) and that her offer to retire had been rejected.

Legislators had expressed unhappiness with Community Correction's failure to seek sufficient budgets for parole and probation officers. Sharp defended the agency's ability to get the work done with existing staff, despite a caseload bigger than comparable states, but in the budget for the next fiscal year had sought some increases that apparently drew the governor's unhappiness.

UPDATE: Here's some of the information Sharp distributed.

It's a packet of info that includes the governor's budget plan for the year, her 2018 personnel evaluation (good), her detailed budget request, a memo from Board chair Benny Magness objecting to closure of Omart, a rehab facilitiy in Gassville in Baxter County, where Magness lives.  Its conversion to transitional housing for parolees caused controversy, the Baxter Bulletin has reported.

UPDATE II: Here's Sharp's letter explaining her departure. It's the meat of the matter.

She expressed disappointment that, after 40 years working for the state, she had to accept firing to receive unemployment benefits rather than working out a retirement date with a period to get affairs in order, primarily to stay until she was closer to full Social Security retirement age. She turned 64 this month.

The letter said Hutchinson wanted a "new direction" but clearly was unhappy with her request for more staff, though the Board had approved only 30 of 99 jobs she'd requested. She relates discussions with Magness about the meeting in which Magness attempted to say the decision to get rid of her wasn't due to the governor's unhappiness, though that clearly seems the case.

Sharp wrote in detail about the need for more staff, more re-entry beds and other expenses that she said had been discussed with the governor's office in advance, including some specifically requested by the governor's office. She, said, too, that it was a possible law violation to prohibit agencies from submitting budget requests that vary from the governor's wishes. (As a practical matter, agency directors submit budget requests not cleared by the governor at their peril.) She wrote, however:

Statutory authority was put in place by the State Legislature to make sure both the Executive and Legislative Branch could have input in determining needs for the state.
She concluded by listing achievements by the agency during "tumultuous" times and then offered a thought sure to resonate again as a tax-cut-hungry governor tries to make money available for that purpose by restricting or even strangling state services.

We have also followed all the Governor’s recommendations for implementation of efficiencies in every area of our operation. The attached ACC’s efficiency efforts lists the numerous efficiencies we have accomplished resulting in millions of dollars of savings to the state (see attached).

Forcing government reductions for the sake of tax cuts without due consideration of the dangers to the public lead to hard lessons being relearned.

I have no intention of following the path of my predecessor and will leave with my head held high, and extremely proud of the work my agency has accomplished amid political constraints.

There's no indication in the letter that the firing relates to the simmering unhappiness over deputy director Kevin Murphy's profiteering on public and quasi-private jobs related to the agency, on top of earlier Correction Department retirement. Sharp had defended him. Will he last much longer? Perhaps. He was named acting director today. He will get to hang onto his lucrative side hustle for a nonprofit dealing with agency employees. BUT UPDATE: In a staff meeting this afternoon, Murphy told department employees he'll be going on non-paid volunteer status with the employees benevolent association, which stopped offering an insurance plan after state auditors raised questions.

It will be interesting, too, to see if Magness is reappointed to the Correction Board as he hopes, after taking responsibility for Sharp's swift ouster. He held a fund-raiser recently for the governor. Also potentially ahead: Merging Community Correction back into the prison system.

UPDATE: Sharp told me in a phone interview she hopes the public will take notice of the message she tried to deliver in her letter. "You can't keep ignoring public safety." The prisons hold 15,000 people and 10,000 are released every year. "People we are afraid of are being released. They are coming home and sitting in front of probation or parole officers. They've been released five or six times before. That's a difficult job."

She said the officers have an average caseload of 200. They are doing a good job, she said, but "there's no way you can do a great job. They are doing a good job, but fighting it every day and it's not right."

The governor isn't getting into it. His statement:

"I support today’s decision by the Arkansas Board of Correction. I appreciate Director Sharp’s work and service to the state over the years and wish her well in her future opportunities."

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