Rogue Clay County commissioners waste $150,000 on lawyers in fight to deny inmates food

Unbelievably, contractors providing food and health care to Clay County Jail inmates haven’t been paid for months now, despite a judge’s August order.

But the lawyers trying to block that vital money sure aren’t missing a paycheck.

Clay County commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen have stuck taxpayers with more than $150,000 in legal bills in their bizarre effort to starve Sheriff Paul Vescovo of money for inmate food and health care.

That’s just for the billing period covering late July and the month of August. There was no word Monday, a government holiday, on how much more the battle cost taxpayers in September.

The sheriff says the county is now more than $500,000 in arrears to the contractors.

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From left, Clay County Commissioners Gene Owen, Jerry Nolte and Luann Ridgeway File photo

Meanwhile, the same two commissioners also have dipped into taxpayers’ pockets to go to court and fight a state audit of the county’s finances that residents demanded in a petition.

Taxpayers will be comforted to know that the legal costs resulting from these two wholly unnecessary lawsuits are considered by the county bureaucracy to be “risk mitigation.” Precisely what risks are being mitigated here — the risk that jail inmates will be fed and cared for as the law and Constitution require? The risk that the state auditor will take an objective look at county finances, which appear to all the world to be sketchy at best?

Both legal clashes are a complete waste of money and a back-of-the-hand affront to the citizenry. How imperious, for instance, that these two commissioners are spending taxpayer money to try to block an audit the people have, themselves, commanded be done?

But for sheer lunacy, it’s hard to beat the commissioners’ attempt to deny the sheriff the funds he needs to feed and tend to inmates in the county’s care, custody and control. We’ve never heard of such a thing, outside of medieval Europe.

Despite going to court to defend capriciously cutting the sheriff’s budget by some $1 million, the commissioners appear to know it’s indefensible: In an August court hearing, assistant county administrator Laurie Portwood, the county’s top budget official, had trouble answering a judge’s questions about decisions relating to the sheriff’s budget, and claimed ignorance of who sent her text messages about it. Moreover, lawyers for Ridgeway and Owen didn’t present evidence at the hearing or cross-examine Sheriff Vescovo’s witnesses.

With the passage of time, and over $150,000 in legal bills, the case has become all the more indefensible.

Jason Withington, a citizen activist involved in the prior audit petition and a new effort to explore changing the Clay County charter, called Ridgeway and Owen’s tax-paid legal bills “another example of the disrespect and contempt both continue to show toward the citizens who pay their salaries and will have to bear the burden of their pensions long after they are gone from the office they currently hold.”

The sheriff has said he believes Ridgeway and Owen’s head-scratching actions are retaliation for his office’s 2017 investigation into document tampering at the county.

County Clerk Megan Thompson, who discovered the tampering and is now running against Ridgeway in next year’s election, said “ridiculous government spending like this” is one reason she launched her campaign.

If Ridgeway and Owen get their way on jail funding — or simply drag this fight out much longer than a Nov. 8 appeals court hearing — the sheriff says he’ll have to empty the jail and cut some 320 inmates loose — likely half to other jails, half to the streets. “That’s what gives me night sweats,” he told The Star.

That prospect, as well as mounting legal bills, should keep taxpayers up as well.

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