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Call for review of county jail issues by ombudsman prompts questions

A proposal to create an ombudsman who could independently review complaints about Erie County's jails has prompted questions about how to fund the post and whether it would dilute the sheriff's power.

Members of a jail advisory committee said Tuesday that they hope to meet with county lawmakers and urge them to advance the idea.

Meanwhile, the county attorney has said that more research is needed to determine whether the proposal would require a referendum.

County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa wrote in a memorandum to two legislators that the proposal "could arguably transfer or otherwise dilute the sheriff's authority and power to investigate complaints and facilitate fair settlements."

The Community Corrections Advisory Board last fall voted to recommend the creation of an independent jail ombudsman. The proposal has been tabled at the County Legislature's Public Safety Committee since.

The advisory board initially recommended that the county use money from jail commissary sales to pay for the new office but has since zeroed in on profits from telephone calls that inmates make. The Sheriff's Office has control over both funds.

The advisory board would need support from a majority of the 11-member Legislature, as well as the county executive, to move the proposal forward.

"I want to ensure that if we're going to do it for county government, we do it right," County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz said that he did not object to the creation of a jail ombudsman but noted that questions -- including how to pay for a new position and whether it would require a change to the County Charter -- still have to be resolved.

"Right now, there are too many open issues to say that we could bring in a position and fully fund it and have it operational in a short period of time," Poloncarz said.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard has said he does not support the creation of a new position and believes there already are sufficient avenues for complaints to be made.

Legislator Timothy R. Hogues, chairman of the Legislature's Public Safety Committee, has said he supports the proposal, but two legislators who sought the legal opinion from Siragusa said they are concerned that it would duplicate the sheriff's duties.

"The proposal in its current form needs to change because it infringes on an elected official's job description," said Legislator Edward A. Rath III, who sought the legal opinion along with Legislator Lynne M. Dixon.

Members of the Community Corrections Advisory Board hope to persuade legislators to draft a proposed new local law to create the position.

"I feel confident they can do it," said attorney Nan L. Haynes, a member of the advisory board. "Someone has to draft a bill, and part of drafting a bill is to get around any legal questions that arise, and a well-drafted bill deals respectively with any legal challenges."