News - June 5, 2017 - by Ray Hagar

By Ray Hagar
Nevada Newsmakers

Washoe County Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler said Monday that the commission needs to take a stronger hand in dealing with Washoe Sheriff Chuck Allen, adding that Allen does not work well with the commission.

Berkbigler's comments on Nevada Newsmakers came in response to a question about an investigative series in the Reno Gazette-Journal, focused on a sharp increase of in-custody deaths at the Washoe County Jail under Allen's administration.

Thirteen people have died at the jail in the last two years, according to the RGJ. Allen announced late last year that he would not run for re-election after first getting elected in 2014. Allen's announcement came before the RGJ published its series.

When asked if Allen's departure was linked to the jailhouse investigation, Berkbigler said:

"Chuck said the reason he wasn't running is because he had a conversation with his wife and they decided they didn't want to run," Berkbigler said. "There are other things you could put out there and say Chuck is not running because of this issue or that issue. I don't know. I don't get into Chuck's mind.

"And frankly, he's not very good at working with the commission," Berkbigler added. "Neither was his predecessor (Mike Haley)."

The Washoe sheriff has acted too independently from the commission over the years, Berkbigler said.

"So they do have a tendency to think because they are independently elected, they can do what they want," Berkbigler said. "But that's OK. They can do that.

"But as long as it still says 'Washoe County Commission' and we're still responsible for their budget, they do have some sense of responsibility to us to make sure we understand what is going on over there," Berkbigler said. "And they have not done a good job of that. The sheriff, Chuck, really hasn't done a good job of that."

Berkbigler said she has requested Allen give a monthly report to commissioners on the jail's operations.

"I have requested a monthly report from the sheriff himself to come speak to us and give us a report on what is happening at the jail facility itself," Berkbigler said. (I want him to) give us a report on everything that's going on and then a specific, side report on the group that is providing medical care."

Berkbiger deflected a question when asked why commissioners where unaware of a law mandating commissioners inspect the jail.

"It isn't that we didn't know we're required to inspect the jail, all commissioners, annually do a tour of the jail," Berkbiger said. "The problem is, the sheriff is an independently-elected person and telling him what he has to do in his jail is like telling the school board what they have to do in their schools. They are independently-elected officials."

When asked specifically if commissioners need to take a stronger hand with the sheriff, Berkbigler said 'Yes," adding that the Washoe Commission, overall, should be more like the Clark County Commission and be the dominate government for the region.

"It (county government) is the regional government," Berkbigler said. "It has the regional responsibility for people, whether they live inside or outside of the city. Regionally, it is responsible for all the health-care issues, all of the social programs. Our tax dollars pay for the jail. No other entity pays for the jail, other than the feds."

The current equality among the governments in the North, including the City of Sparks and the City of Reno, makes regional planning difficult, Berkbigler said.

It is not because we are R (Republicans) and D (Democrats)," Berkbigler said. "It is because all elected governments in Washoe County hold the same position."

Berkbigler was critical of Sparks and Reno when it comes to regional planning.

"If you try and work as a region, you always have Sparks, who is off to the side and wants to do their own thing," Berkbigler said. "They are going to be Sparks. They don't want to be part of Reno and Washoe County.

"If you want to do something with Reno, you always worry about Reno wanting to have the power," Berkbigler said. "Reno wants to be the big dog on the street and that is a problem.

"If we had a much more controlled commission, the commission could say from a regional perspective, 'We all need to work together, let's do this and let's move in this direction and how does that work for everybody? That is what happens in Clark County. And if we had that in Northern Nevada, you'd see better growth."