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Hamilton County sheriff-elect promises transparent operations

Jim Neil defeated Sean Donovan Tuesday

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CINCINNATI - Jim Neil on Wednesday promised out-of-the-box thinking when he becomes Hamilton County Sheriff in January.

For example, he suggested it might be fiscally wise to use some of the cells in the former county jail atop the Hamilton County Courthouse to relieve justice center overcrowding.

"We are going to work together to provide the best service we can to the people of Hamilton County," he said.  "When I say Hamilton County, I mean the people in all 49 communities."

Democrat Neil's comments came the day after he defeated the current Chief Deputy, Sean Donovan, a Republican, to replace Simon Leis, who is retiring after 25 years in the position.

Challenges abound for the Neil administration. There's a proposal before commissioners to cut another $2 million from the sheriff's budget.  The jail overcrowding issue is constant. Questions loom about sharing services.

Neil plans to begin his term with an independent fiscal and operational audit of the entire office. He said he believes any organization can up with 10 percent of spending that's not efficient.

"We're looking for waste, duplication of services and programs that are failing or that aren't successful," he said.  "We have dollars that are being invested in all our divisions and if there's programs out there that are failing, we need to know that."

Asked what he meant, Neil said the office has a patrol academy and a jail academy.

"Why can't we just have a sheriff's academy?" he wondered.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office has it's own SWAT and dive teams that Neil said duplicate others in the county.

"As sheriff elect I'm not advocating Metro (government), but there's things that we can do to work together," he said. "When it comes to specialized services like SWAT and dive, why can't we perform in a cooperative arrangement here?"

The sheriff's office currently has contracts with a number of townships to provide road patrols.  Neil said they're paid for by taxpayers and primarily patrol unincorporated areas.

He suggested exploring using them for incorporated areas as well, but not charging for the service.

"I see no reason to attempt or try to sell them to the townships," he said. "That would be raising additional taxes off the backs of the people out in the townships."

On the jail overcrowding issue, Neil is an advocate for alternative sentences like electronic monitoring and drug treatment or other rehabilitation programs.

"Obviously, through the use of diversion, if we can free up jail cells, that way we have those available for our most dangerous and violent offenders," he said. "Whether we have 800 cells or 2,000 cells, judges have a tendency to sentence to capacity anyway."
 
One of the hallmarks of the Leis administration as sheriff has been equipment such as an armored personnel carrier and a submarine to display in parades.

Neil said he has use for neither of them because of the cost.

"I would lay off the tank or submarine before I lay off another service provider," he said. "Your No. 1 resource in any organization is your human resource and it's high time that you respect and give those people the due respect they deserve."

Despite the budget challenges, Neil said he believes the office can grow in its reach and operation.

"It's being proactive rather than reactive in your management style -- I will, I can, instead of only if I had -- reactive language," he said.

The first appointment Neil made once he was sure he won the election was to name Lt. Mark Schoonover as Chief Deputy. Schoonover has been with the sheriff's office for 31 years.

"We are going to do everything in our power to make this the best organization and to build on what we have now," he said. "It will be second to none in my opinion."

Schoonover said his management style is to be firm, but fair.

"I'm not afraid to handle a situation when it comes about," he said.  "I'll take care of it, but I like to be very fair with the individuals that work for me."

Donovan has been chief deputy for 15 years and on Wednesday began to pack belongings in his Justice Center office.

"I did what I felt was everything I could do to get my message out to the voters of Hamilton County -- my experience and my background in this agency and what it brought to that job, but it went the other way," he said.  "Life goes on."

He said he hopes the agency remains as professional and well-operated as it has been during the Leis years and vowed to help Neil's team take over.
 
"I don't want anything to go wrong. I don't want lives in jeopardy. I don't want inmates or court processes or anything to be disrupted," he said. "I'll do whatever I can do to make sure there's a professional seamless transition."

Looking back on his time working with and for Leis, Donovan said the high standards that have been set are used by other departments around the country.

"Fitness standards, weight standards, how we treat the public and how we treat inmates -- all those things make this agency a model for agencies all over the United States," he said.

"We take great pride in that."

Donovan said his future plans haven't been firmed up yet.

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