THEY SAY everything's bigger in Texas. That apparently includes delegations of visiting dignitaries.
Earlier this year, local public safety officials jumped at a chance to take a late-July jaunt down to sweltering San Antonio. It turns out Bexar County, where the city sits, has had success getting treatment to mentally ill criminal offenders. Local criminal justice and mental health experts wanted to see it for themselves.
Not just two or three, either. The list drawn up via the Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC) included a dozen people.
Under the direction of County Commissioner Judy Shiprack and LPSCC Executive Director Abbey Stamp, the county purchased nonrefundable plane tickets in mid-June for a roster that included County Commissioner Loretta Smith, Police Chief Mike Reese, an official with Legacy Health, and a variety of county staffers. Lodging was reserved a few days later.
The trip, employees say, spurred whispers in the Multnomah Building: Why so large a group? Couldn't a few people make the journey and simply report back?
Apparently, yes. Whether because of interest from journalists, other considerations, or both, officials abruptly pulled back on the trip. Just 10 days after the county purchased airfare to Texas, Shiprack announced a change in plans.
"The tight timeframe, size of the group, ability of our host to accommodate a large group, and complexity of Bexar County's system," Shiprack wrote in an email to participants on June 23, "have led me to conclude that the best opportunity for a successful visit makes it necessary to reduce the number of individuals visiting."
According to Matthew Lashua, Shiprack's chief of staff whose name was snatched from the list of Texas-goers, the conference room officials were slated to meet in could only hold 10 people.
But there's still a mess of people headed to Texas, officials concede. The number shrunk to five after Shiprack's email. Then jumped to nine.
As of press time, eight officials are slated for the day-and-a-half jaunt on July 30 and 31—at a cost of nearly $650 per person for airfare and lodging, plus up to $130 per person in daily expenses. Five—including Reese, the county's mental health chief, and an undersheriff— will have their costs covered with federal grant money. Trips for the remaining three—the Legacy official, a Multnomah County prosecutor, and Stamp—will be funded by their employers. The county will eat the cost of the four cancelled plane tickets, worth a combined $2,010.
It's not even a blip in the county's $1.6 billion budget. But the trip has caused some self-examination, sources say. And it's been a struggle to acquire straightforward records about travel arrangements.
The Mercury inquired about the costs associated with airline cancellations on June 25, and didn't receive an answer until Tuesday, July 15.
The purpose of the trip is to examine a specific Bexar County program that diverts criminal offenders with mental-health needs to treatment. Multnomah County has a similar effort already, but officials say we need to improve.
"They're able to keep the right kind of inmates in the actual jail," while getting mentally ill individuals the help they need, Stamp says of the Texas program. "We want to make sure we have the right leaders brought in no matter what we decide to do."
According to an agenda for the trip, officials will fly into San Antonio on July 30 and have dinner with a leader of the Bexar County program. They'll tour various facilities and watch presentations the next day, then fly back to Portland in the evening.
Bexar County's not shy about promoting its efforts. Since getting the diversion program in 2002, the county estimates it has pushed more than 4,000 people away from the criminal justice system and toward treatment. It's since outlined its method at professional conferences and provided consultations to communities throughout the US, as well as in Canada and China.
Bexar County even has a helpful 48-page report providing instruction for officials who can't make the trip. It's called "How to Set Up a Jail Diversion Program in Your Community."