Clay County commissioners with vendetta against the sheriff put public safety at risk

The two Clay County commissioners who’ve cut the sheriff’s budget by $1 million may think they’re sticking it to him, or to “criminals” in the county jail he runs.

In fact, in their attempts to punish the sheriff and other county officials who cross them — and in suing to stop a state audit of the county’s finances that was demanded by citizens — Commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen are costing taxpayers untold dollars, embarrassment and hardship as the ship they’re steering runs aground. Not to mention the fact that denying food and health care to inmates is completely unconstitutional and utterly inhumane.

Ridgeway and Owen seem to think they’re running an island prison in a Dumas novel.

Thankfully, Daviess County Judge Daren Adkins, brought in to referee this Clay County mud-wrestling extravaganza, felt forced to order the $1 million restored to Sheriff Paul Vescovo’s budget to keep the inmates alive, the jail running and its private service providers paid — though the vendors have gamely continued serving the county without pay during the standoff.

Trouble is, Ridgeway and Owen have doubled down on stubborn: They’re appealing the judge’s order, further starving the jail of its operating cash. And though the two sides have agreed to an accelerated appeal, it’s likely to drag on until the end of October at least.

How long can the jail’s food and health care providers work for free? Although Advanced Correctional Healthcare Inc. President Jessica Young says, “You don’t simply walk away from your partner when they’re going through a difficult time,” the company stated in an Aug. 7 letter demanding payment that the county was already in arrears more than $143,000.

“At some point, (the providers) are going to have to say enough is enough,” Vescovo said Wednesday, adding that, if food and health care services cease, he’ll have to empty the jail of its nearly 320 inmates. About half — the low-level-offense inmates — would be released on bond if judges agree, while the rest would have to be farmed out to other jails in the region if there’s room, which obviously would create additional costs for Clay County.

“That’s what gives me night sweats,” the sheriff told The Star of the worst-case scenario.

It should also send shivers through all of Clay County — and the entire region, since we’re talking about possibly emptying out an entire jail.

Meanwhile, Clay County taxpayers, whose considerable 9,000-signature petition last year rightly forced the current state audit of county finances, are now outrageously picking up the tab for the two commissioners’ bizarre, perhaps unprecedented decision to block the audit in court. In fact, county taxpayers need to know they are paying for both sides’ legal fees in Ridgeway and Owen’s attempt to thwart the public’s will.

Taxpayers are paying in other ways as well. In a hastily called meeting Aug. 28, Ridgeway and Owen obligated the county to spend $2 million for prime real estate to build a new county annex, rather than renovate the existing one.

Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte has been the lone voice of reason in all of this, intrepidly voting against Ridgeway and Owen’s costly misadventures. But when it takes just two of three commissioners to make policy for an entire county, they can create an awful lot of mischief.

The sheriff says he is convinced the slashing of his budget by a third over the past year is retaliation for his opening an investigation into the tampering of county records. Clay County budget officer Laurie Portwood subsequently entered into a diversion program to avoid prosecution for allegedly ordering a subordinate to perform the tampering.

Then, strangely enough, she got a raise while the sheriff’s budget was gashed.

In another odd coincidence, County Clerk Megan Thompson, whose office had discovered and reported the document tampering, was removed as the county’s custodian of records by Ridgeway and Owen. Instead, they opted to pay a private law firm tens of thousands of dollars to perform the county clerk’s function.

Then, just weeks into Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s review of Clay County finances earlier this year, she had to subpoena records from an evasive and uncooperative county administration.

What in the world are Ridgeway and Owen thinking, starving the sheriff and jail financially and stalling the state audit, which has largely ground to a halt during litigation? If everything were kosher, you’d think Ridgeway and Owen would drop the lawsuit and welcome the audit.

Clay Countians should seek Ridgeway’s and Owen’s resignations or ouster. And they should consider expanding their commission from just three members in order to prevent two rogue officials from ever again holding the county hostage — and costing taxpayers a king’s ransom.