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Lake County Sheriff's Department and jail

The Lake County Sheriff's Department and jail in Crown Point.

It's the quintessential way all government should work.

When one branch detects a problem in the workings of government, it brings that issue to the attention of other affected branches and then begins collaborating to find solutions.

We're seeing it unfold in Lake County government as the county council and sheriff's office work together, finally, to rectify runaway overtime and unauthorized positions and benefits among the county jail staff.

We all should take note and remind our elected officials that constituents expect this type of collaboration as the rule, not the exception.

A problem in both expense and potential toll on safety within the jail has arisen from the Lake County Jail's overtime issue for years.

Nearly every year of former Sheriff John Buncich's most recent eight-year tenure, Buncich would make emergency financial requests to the Lake County Council to cover burgeoning overtime pay for jail corrections officers.

In short, $1.6 million in annual overtime prompted the sheriff to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond his budget.

The county council, in turn, generally approved the request, though often begrudgingly, because Buncich frequently argued it was all necessary under federal mandates to improve jail conditions.

Oftentimes, arguments, rather than efforts at finding solutions, would ensue.

The ongoing expense, and the potential safety toll on some jailers who were working in excess of 100 hours per week, were detailed by Times columnist Marc Chase in July.

Last week, we began to see a move toward a solution, and it took some disinfecting sunlight on past flawed practices to move the needle.

Lake County Councilman Eldon Strong said he recently became aware of an unauthorized system of benefits and compensation that former Sheriff Buncich had adopted outside of the labor contract between the council and the jailers' union.

It was revealed to him during labor negotiations, which he headed as a member of the county council.

Strong learned Buncich created more than 30 unauthorized corporal positions among the jail staff, offering those personnel 40 hours each of paid time off annually — in addition to those staffers' existing pay and benefits.

The practice created up to 1,400, or more, hours each year in which lower-ranking jail officers had to work overtime to cover for the unauthorized time off.

Strong brought the matter to new Sheriff Oscar Martinez, noting the practice wasn't authorized by the council or the labor agreement.

Martinez now says he will freeze the practice in the coming year and collaborate with the council, the jailers' union and other levels of county government to rectify the problem.

Buncich told The Times Tuesday he adopted the corporal compensation because he needed more supervisors in the jail but could never get the needed funding from the council.

Buncich is no longer sheriff, ousted earlier this year because of a felony conviction for accepting bribes from towing contractors doing business with the sheriff's office.

Nonetheless, the new sheriff and county council should use what appears to be a newfound spirit of cooperation to identify and improve jail operations, from proper supervision to fiscal challenges and overtime.

We like what we're seeing so far. All public officials should know their constituents expect this degree of cooperation every day, not just ahead of election years.


Members of The Times Editorial Board are Publisher Christopher T. White, Editor Marc Chase, Deputy Editor Kerry Erickson, Assistant Local News Editor Crista Zivanovic and Regional News Editor Sharon Ross.