Klickitat County narrowing its options for jail, icing out the sheriff

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
May 28, 2024 11:02 p.m.

A new report shows county officials are discussing four different scenarios for the jail’s future, but none include Sheriff Bob Songer retaining control.

Klickitat County may soon shut down its local jail over safety concerns, but the decision continues to raise tensions among the county’s leadership.

Whether the jail closes entirely remains a question. However, it appears likely that Sheriff Bob Songer, who has vocal detractors and supporters locally, will lose his authority over the facility.

Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer stands in a field with wind tribunes behind him.

FILE: Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer has opposed efforts by county commissioners to remove operation of the local jail from his control. He has called on alternative proposals to be put before voters.

Courtesy Klickitat County Sheriff's Office

A new report shows that the Board of County Commissioners will soon be discussing several options for the jail’s future and none include Songer retaining control. The three-term sheriff slammed the report in an interview Tuesday.

“We have two county commissioners that are playing political games and they want to get it out of the hands of the sheriff,” he said. “They can black-eye the sheriff, beat him up, saying he’s incompetent — it’s nonsense.”

The report stems from the board’s March 29 decision in which the officials voted to begin closing the jail down. The county has considered moving its people in custody to the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility — NORCOR — based in The Dalles, Oregon.

County officials now have in hand four scenarios to consider for the jail’s future, according to the report. Two scenarios involve contracting with NORCOR, which would either close the jail entirely or keep it open solely as a place to book and temporarily hold people in custody. These are the two cheapest options.

The other two, more expensive scenarios would see Klickitat County build an entirely new jail or create a new department that supervises the jail and reports directly to the board of commissioners. Multiple counties in Washington run their jails independent of the sheriff. Clark County took over its jail in 2023.

Songer called his absence in the scenarios a political power play. He called the county commissioners “woke” while fashioning himself as a constitutional sheriff, a far-right ideology that suggests local sheriffs can decide which laws are constitutional.

The county commissioners should put every option on a special election ballot, Songer said, and let the voters decide.

“They’re not going to do that because they know darn well there’s a good chance they would vote and have the sheriff continue running the jail,” Songer said.

He finds himself in this position largely due to a pair of headline-grabbing safety issues at the jail in the past year.

Last year, a man killed himself in custody and his family has signaled they intend to sue for negligence.

Then, last fall, a female inmate had deteriorated to the point that she needed to go to the hospital. A police officer at the scene noted the inmate smelled of “rotting flesh” and was nearly septic.

The 44-page budget report, however, focuses on the sheriff’s finances. While other county departments have made cuts or remained status quo, the report said, Songer has on multiple occasions asked for increases late in the budget cycle.


The report, authored by two county staffers, also claims Songer has been using money earmarked for the jail on other departments. Between 2021 and 2023, the sheriff annually underspent on the jail by $67,505 — while seemingly rerouting those dollars to the administration and patrol departments.

“The findings reveal that the jail budget has been supplementing other sub-department budgets,” the staffers wrote.

County staff did not respond to requests for comment. Commissioners Lori Zoller and Jacob Anderson, who have been the most vocal of the trio about the jail discussion, also did not respond to requests for comment.

Songer disputed the financial findings and said he’s planning to produce his own report. He argued he can spend jail money on other departments if he sees fit.

“The sheriff has legal right, in my opinion, to move that around,” he said.

According to Songer, he’s repeatedly asked the county commissioners to help improve the jail. For example, he said the jail has needed behavioral health experts for inmates. He acknowledged he hasn’t made any asks “in writing.”

The report said Songer has not communicated such needs.

“There hasn’t been any requests ... for additional jail staff, medical staff, operational adjustments to meet the needs of the adults in custody, or explanation of the struggles the jail faces,” the county staffers wrote.

The sheriff’s unpaid bills to Klickitat Valley Health also appeared in the report. OPB first reported in April that the jail owed roughly $192,000 to the hospital, which treats inmates when they need medical attention. Some of the bills are three years old.

Insurance premiums are set to spike, county officials also noted. The jail is forecasted to pay between $107,000 and $116,000 more in insurance next year.

The jail has historically fronted inmates’ hospital bills and later billed the respective department that arrested that person. At least two agencies owe the sheriff more than $50,000 over the past two years, the report said, and he has not recovered those costs.

“These contracts have not been renegotiated in almost six years,” the report said. “One city contract has been expired since 2022.”

The report authors wrote that Klickitat Valley Health’s accountants have sometimes been “confused” by who to bill for inmates’ care.

On Saturday, Songer hosted a nearly three-hour-long meeting to decry the jail’s likely closure.

The sheriff played a 45-minute video produced by KrisAnne Hall, a critic of the federal government and a figure in the constitutional sheriffs movement, before opening up the floor for a two-hour discussion.

The discussion was “lively,” Songer said. The Columbia Gorge News reported attendees debated over whether the Constitution gives sheriffs as much authority as Songer believes. Some in the room were “shouted down,” the news organization reported, and Songer “jumped to defend” their right to speak.

When asked if he held the town hall to put pressure on commissioners, Songer said no. But he did hope to counter the report, which he accused of fudging numbers.

“I’ll have people looking at the budget to point how they’ve manipulated it,” he said.