November 13, 2001 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

ELGIN Frustration was high over who should be in jail and who at home in Elgin during Tuesday nights confrontation between the Elgin City Council and county law enforcement representatives.

The situation came before the council following a letter sent to Sheriff Steve Oliver by the council two weeks ago. Community members were frustrated at not getting people they considered criminals removed from their neighborhoods.

The city councilors were frustrated at what appeared, to them, to be county law enforcement ignoring their concerns.

County law enforcement officers were frustrated for a system that they couldnt control.

Union County Undersheriff Dana Wright and Community Corrections Director Cedric Shanks appeared before the council in response to a two-page letter Berta Churchill, Elgin mayor, and the entire city council had sent to Oliver.

We have received numerous complaints from the public we serve regarding convicted criminals living in their neighborhoods, the councils letter said. This letter is to inform you of our determination to keep Elgin safe for our citizens and their children. In the strongest terms, we wish to inform you that the city council, speaking for the citizens of Elgin, will no longer tolerate having criminals freely living in our community.

Wright tried to explain how people may be released from jail shortly after they are arrested (see related story), the history of the county jail, and the limitations set by ballot measures passed in the 1990s.

The jail, Wright said, was built in 1980 and is out-of-date in terms of effective jail design. It requires more staff to take care of prisoners than a more modern jail does, he said.

New laws require certain people to be held without release, limiting available jail beds, and with Wallowa County deciding last year to contract for jail space in Umatilla County, there are fewer available jail beds in Union County, Wright said.

Shanks said the countys house arrest program and probation and parole program, manned with a total of 3.1 full-time equivalent employees to oversee between 190 and 200 felons living in the county.

Shanks said there are 16 people living in Elgin serving probation or parole time supervised by Community Corrections. Of those, 14 originally came from Elgin, and one has purchased a home in Elgin.

Shanks and Wright both said it is critical for community members to help law enforcement put together evidence that will stand up in court against criminals and be willing to keep working with all branches of law enforcement.

The letter from the council said, Parole offices are not to take a its just Elgin attitude nor an out of sight, out of mind attitude toward their parolees actions. Under no circumstances will we tolerate the dumping of parolees in our town whose only connection here, is that they have a friend who lives here.

Councilor John Braughten told the officers, after a discussion of the matrix process that releases prisoners before arraignment, that I have a real problem with this. We want a way to keep these guys out of town.

Braughten and the community members repeatedly asked for help from the officers, who came up with ways for citizens to help, short of financing a new jail.

Shanks suggested a community meeting, an ongoing process, for sharing how citizens can learn to help police from all agencies and get basic information on understanding the rights of those facing crimes.

We dont have the ability to force (those accused of crimes) to move, Wright stressed.

In the meantime, he said, theres strength in numbers. You cant do this any other way. People have to be willing to testify against these people.

Theres two things you can do immediately, Wright said. First, the public safety committee can look at the matrix system again to see if it is addressing community concerns while still being realistic. People and officers can work together for better community education, he said.

The council approved a resolution to go ahead on purchasing 20 acres of Weyerhaeuser property bordering the citys industrial park.

City Administrator Joe Garlitz announced that Elgin had gotten a Special Cities grant to finish work on Baltimore Street.