Santa Fe County is betting on a new highly paid administrator to help it save money in the long run, and it's willing to overlook his controversial past.
The county hired Pablo Sedillo III late last year for the newly created position of Public Safety Division director. Sedillo earns an annual salary between $81,000 and $122,000 and oversees not only the Corrections Department, but also the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office and Fire Department.
Sedillo's hiring comes at a critical time in the county's management of the jail. For years, the county has been trying to rein in operating costs at the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility. Currently, the jail eats up $9 million annually—the biggest portion of the county budget, County Manager Katherine Miller says.
"The commission indicated, 'Can't we do something to reduce these costs?'" Miller says. The county would like to increase the number of inmates it houses from other jurisdictions to help its bottom line; because of its design, the jail's operation costs the same regardless of occupancy. Despite a 682-inmate capacity, the jail's average occupancy is just 144, according to the state Corrections Department.
County commissioners have explored the jail's budget problem in meetings over the past few years, putting increasing pressure on the facility's director, Annabelle Romero, since the recession hit.
Sedillo's résumé, obtained from the county through an open records request, touts his ability to cut operating costs. It states that he cut the budget of the Arizona Interstate Compact Division, which transfers parolees to and from the state, by 33 percent during a five-year stint there and that he has experience "consulting city, county and state governments regarding privatization." Miller tells SFR that's partly why she picked him: With his private-industry background, Sedillo might have the skills to get inmates from surrounding jurisdictions housed at the SFCADF. Sedillo's salary is justified to increase coordination between the different public-safety-related county departments, Miller says. But Susan Cave, who contracts with the 1st Judicial District Court to provide diagnostic assessments of mentally ill inmates, has her doubts.
"As a former chairman of the [Santa Fe] County Corrections Advisory Committee, I don't see the need for that position," Cave says.
Ironically, Romero—who now reports to Sedillo—arrived at the detention facility in 2005, just as it was bouncing back from a previous stint as a privately run jail. Under private management, conditions at the jail were so bad that a federal court order required the county to prove it was meeting care standards [cover story, July 20, 2011: "Jail, Inc."]. Romero was put in charge of bringing the facility into compliance, and by many accounts, she has succeeded at making it a much more humane place. The jail is widely acknowledged to provide more mental health care to the indigent than any other facility [cover story, May 25, 2011: "Psyched Out"]; lawsuits have all but disappeared; and staff is "fiercely loyal" to Romero, County Commissioner Kathy Holian says.
Sedillo has a different track record, according to official documents from the Hawaii Department of Public Safety. Sedillo was the warden of an Arizona jail, the Florence Correctional Center, from 1999-2001. (Many of the jail's inmates were Hawaiian, as most Hawaiian inmates are sent to mainland facilities.)
Sedillo was removed from that position after conditions there became so dangerous that visiting Hawaii DPS authorities couldn't even tour the facility due to safety concerns. According to the Hawaii DPS reports, gang activity by a group called the United Samoan Organization turned the medium-security jail into a war zone. Hawaii DPS reports state that the USO gang "runs the facility." In April 2001 alone, a riot broke out, sending a corrections officer to the hospital to get stitches; two inmates died (one from a heroin balloon that exploded in his stomach); and six inmates were assaulted. Corrections staff openly admitted to bringing in drugs and "working for" USO members.
"Staff appear stressed and reluctant to speak about their work environment for fear of retaliation from administration and inmates," the report states. "In light of the recent riot inmate deaths and assaults on staff, the level of tension remains high. It appears that morale is declining along with frustrations of lack of administrative control within FCC."
It's a stark contrast to Sedillo's résumé, which claims that he "excel[s] at inspiring leadership, motivating staff [and] dealing with personnel issues."
Sedillo—whose father, Pablo Sedillo Jr., is a staffer for US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM—could not be reached for comment before press time. Cave says his past could be a problem.
"It raises concerns about his awareness of the needs of the inmate population, as well as the staff," Cave says.
Miller wouldn't discuss Sedillo's work history in detail, but Holian says Miller told her that Sedillo's explanation of the situation satisfied her.
"She did investigate it, and it was her feeling that he came into that situation and…she was satisfied that he personally didn't do anything wrong," Holian says.
The Hawaii DPS reports from after Sedillo was replaced note that the officials were "impressed by Warden Luna's sincere desire to eradicate past practices by Warden Sedillo." Sedillo took four years off from the corrections field after FCC, according to his résumé, working as a car salesman and movie theater manager.