Armond Budish, County Council Exchange Testy Letters About Nurse Staffing at County Jail

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Cuyahoga County council leadership and county executive Armond Budish traded snippy letters last week in the wake of a public safety committee meeting in late May that featured questions to and not many answers from Ken Mills, the county's director of corrections, regarding nursing staffing at jail facilities.

Among other revelations at the meeting: the county has struggled to hire staff at the new Bedford facility and the Euclid jail, even as it markets its services to surrounding communities to take in their prisoners; that the downtown jail remains understaffed; that the county pays well below market rate for nurses, thus explaining some of the problems with recruitment and retention of staff; and that MetroHealth, which runs medical operations at the facilities, has a long list of complaints about Mills and his "obstructionist" behavior.

In fact, Gary Brack, the county's interim nursing director and a Metro employee, was placed on leave and removed from his position the week after speaking out during the meeting. A county spokesperson said the decision was made because his comments showed a "lack of trust."

Council president Dan Brady and public safety chair Michael Gallagher penned a letter to Budish reaffirming council's commitment to not only meeting state standards for medical care in its jails, but exceeding them. While commending Budish for approving an increase in nursing salaries to address the need to remain competitive in the marketplace, the councilmembers submitted two requests. First, that Budish take a long hard look at Mills, who they found to be less than truthful during the meeting in May.

"We ask you to review the County leadership at the Jail. Although we may not agree on the number of nurses needed for each shift at each facility, we know there were many false statements and inaccuracies presented to the committee, which is inexcusable. As have learned from past experience, the issue is a matter of life and death for those in the County's custody and we cannot have county officials making false statements either privately or publicly.

Additionally, Brady and Gallagher suggested amending the county's contract with MetroHealth to allow the hospital to take over hiring of the nursing staff. That currently is a county responsibility and falls under the auspices of Ken Mills.

Budish, for his part, responded with a predictable mixture of self-defense and snippiness.

"I am surprised that you chose to communicate your concerns through a letter, since my office is just down the hall from you," he wrote. "However, since you decided to write a letter, I am compelled to respond in-kind." (Compelled!)

The county executive affirmed that he too considers inmate care of the utmost importance, but said that state audits have repeatedly shown the county is providing suitable care. He echoed Mills, who said that nurses had been hired for Bedford and Euclid before they withdrew from the positions, and that with the recently approved salary bump, hopefully the county wouldn't run into that problem again.

Budish also agreed that MetroHealth should probably be in charge of hiring nurses, though he couldn't help himself from deflecting blame.

"In fact, the current arrangement, with the County hiring the nurses under MetroHealth's medical oversight, is quite odd. It should be noted that this arrangement was previously approved by Council before this administration took office," he wrote. "It should also be noted that, while our nurses belong to a union with the right to collectively bargain, those at MetroHealth do not."

He then signed off, "We would be happy to engage in further conversations, preferably in person."

Zing.

Either way, here's to hoping all sides come together to fix what seems to be an obvious problem.

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