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Ombudsman would help control county's legal costs

As a member of the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board, I voted for a resolution recommending that the County Legislature create the position of ombudsman — an independent, impartial public official with the authority and responsibility to receive, investigate or informally address complaints about the Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility. It's a sound idea that could save taxpayers the millions of dollars the county now spends to defend against and settle complaints that grow into lawsuits. That's why the advisory board passed the resolution by a lopsided vote of 12 to 1.

The sheriff himself opposes the suggestion. He'd rather his office continue to investigate complaints as it always has. One problem with that was well-stated in a Buffalo News editorial published in March: It "reeks of conflict of interest," since it's the sheriff's office that runs the jails prisoners and their families complain about. There's another problem, too. It doesn't work. And the sheriff's office's dismal record in this regard cost Erie County over $3 million in just 10 years.

From October 1999 through August 2010, the county paid $2.8 million to settle lawsuits involving allegations of unconstitutional conditions, excessive force, denial of medical care and wrongful injuries and death at the jails. Add to that $500,000 the county still owes to a woman who was awarded that sum by a jury, and the cost of paying the private law firms the county hired to help defend it against these lawsuits. In just two years, from January 2008 to January 2010, that amounted to another $352,461. That's a total of $3.7 million, and it doesn't include the cost of countless hours county attorneys spent defending the county against these lawsuits.

If complaints over conditions at the jails were investigated not by the sheriff's office, but by an independent person trusted by both the community and the sheriff's office, it's less likely that those complaints would ripen into lawsuits that cost the county millions of dollars. Moreover, an ombudsman investigating complaints would learn about the personnel and policy problems that underlay those complaints. The Legislature could then use that information to make informed decisions about how to remedy the underlying problems, leading to still fewer complaints and fewer lawsuits over conditions at our jails.

Of course, an ombudsman would cost the county money. The estimated cost of the position would be approximately $200,000 per year. That includes a salary for the ombudsman, secretary/clerk to assist the ombudsman, office space and office supplies. It would be money well spent. Choosing to spend taxpayers' money to identify and remedy problems before they give rise to legal claims makes good fiscal sense.

Nan L. Haynes is a faculty member of the University at Buffalo Law School.