Fresno Co. judge denies sheriff's layoff request

February 18, 2010 

A Fresno County Superior Court judge on Thursday refused to grant Sheriff Margaret Mims an emergency order allowing her to lay off correctional officers. But he won't decide until next month whether county supervisors overstepped their authority in blocking the job cuts.

At issue is a decision by county supervisors to prevent Mims from laying off 69 correctional officers and closing parts of the jail. Mims sued county supervisors, saying they violated her authority as sheriff.

Mims' attorneys failed to prove that she would suffer irreparable harm and that she would likely prevail at trial, Judge Donald Franson Jr. said at the conclusion of a hearing Thursday. They needed to prove both to get an immediate order rescinding supervisors' actions.

Franson set a hearing for March 26, when attorneys for Mims and county supervisors will further argue their case.

It's unclear what the judge's decision will mean for jail operations. Mims did not attend Thursday's hearing, and Undersheriff Scott Jones declined to say whether Mims would reopen part of the jail that she closed in anticipation of layoffs.

After announcing her plan last month to close a budget gap through layoffs of correctional officers, Mims released more than 1,000 inmates early from the jail. The releases led supervisors to direct her to make cuts elsewhere.

Mims refused to follow their direction, and hasn't reopened closed sections of the jail. She released another 12 inmates early on Wednesday, saying the 23 correctional officers at the center of the dispute have been assigned to other duties.

In a written statement released Thursday evening, Mims said the court's decision isn't about correctional officers, but control of the sheriff's budget -- an authority she said is vested in her office by voters.

Tom Abshere, director of the correctional officers' union, said Mims should reopen closed sections of the jail, at least for the month until the next court hearing. He also called on her to end a lawsuit that will cost taxpayers $450 an hour for two attorneys representing Mims.

In the hearing, Mims' attorney, Martin Mayer of Orange County, argued that supervisors can only set the amount of the sheriff's budget, and how many employees she has. The board can't specify which positions employees hold, as they did in their recent budget action, Mayer said.

Franson asked questions that suggest he possibly viewed the sheriff's decisions with skepticism. He asked about her budgeting choices.

"Is it possible for the sheriff to abuse that authority?" Franson said. "Does she have to answer to anybody?"

Mayer said Mims is accountable to voters. But decisions about public safety are hers to make, and do not belong to the supervisors, he said.

Franson said he will need to decide whether supervisors made a decision that changed the sheriff's operations. But he said he didn't see the board's actions amounting to a reorganization -- an action held to be improper in a key 1977 Orange County case cited by Mayer. In that case, supervisors transferred investigators from a district attorney to a sheriff.

County attorney Bruce Johnson said Fresno County supervisors didn't do anything close to a reorganization of the Sheriff's Office. Instead, they sought to maintain the status quo by keeping the jail funded, he said.

The reporter can be reached at bbranan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6679.

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