Director of procurement takes on Detention Center O'Neill to wear both hats for now

April 25, 1993|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

The game plan is simple for fixing problems at the jail, says John J. O'Neill Jr., newly appointed acting director of the Harford County Detention Center.

"I plan to review the operation . . . determine any shortcomings and fix them," said Mr. O'Neill, who will keep his job as director of procurement for the county as he tackles the task of restoring public confidence in a jail that has been rocked by recent negative publicity.

Mr. O'Neill took on his additional assignment Monday, greeting about a third of the detention center staff of 75 at morning roll call.

He attended roll call that afternoon and again that night, making sure that his message was heard by all.

He told the correctional officers that he wanted them to abide by, without exception, all the rules that govern detention center personnel. He also said that he would talk to the staff individually and assess their perception of management problems.

"Then I'll develop a plan of action," he said.

The detention center is near the U.S. 1 bypass and Route 24. It houses men and women for up to 18 months.

During March, its average daily population was 299, not counting 42 inmates in the home detention program. The center was designed to house 284 inmates.

Mr. O'Neill, 46, noted that policies governing staff conduct and -- duties are in place at the detention center. He said that his job will be to see that they are followed, adding that if any policy needs to be rewritten, it will be.

He replaces Maj. E. Dale Zepp, who has been chief of court and correctional services under Sheriff Robert E. Comes. On Friday, Major Zepp, 55, a veteran of nearly 34 years with the sheriff's office and who has spent 20 years at the detention center, announced his retirement effective June 30.

Despite reports from sources in county government claiming that Major Zepp was stepping down under pressure, Stuart Jay Robinson, jail chief's attorney, said that the major had considered retiring more than three years ago.

"Dale agreed back then to remain on the job and help out the sheriff," Mr. Robinson said. "He was involved with the national accreditation process started under [previous] Sheriff Dominic Mele and wanted to help accomplish that under Bob Comes."

Once Major Zepp announced his impending retirement, Sheriff Comes asked County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann for assistance. He wanted Mr. O'Neill to take over the daily operation of the detention center until a full-time warden could be hired.

Mr. O'Neill said he hoped that by July or August the new position will be filled. "After I see what's involved, I may be interested in the job on a full-time basis. But I've told both [Mrs. Rehrmann and Sheriff Comes] that I'll decide that matter later," he said.

Before becoming director of procurement in January 1991, Mr. O'Neill acted as deputy secretary for the state department of public safety and correctional services for three years.

Prior to that he spent five years as assistant secretary in the same department and supervised operations for the state police and division of parole and probation.

He was acting superintendent of the state police for seven months of that span during 1987.

The Perry Hall native moved to Harford County in 1975, the same year he earned a master of business administration degree from Loyola College.

In recent years, Mr. O'Neill also has done consultant work for police agencies.

Juggling two full-time jobs "with only one paycheck," Mr. O'Neill joked, will require some help. He asked Sheriff Comes to reassign Lt. Marlin Mills and Lt. Jesse Bane to the detention center.

Lieutenant Mills worked under Major Zepp, handling security for the circuit and district courts and Lieutenant Bane has directed the support enforcement division, tracking down people who are delinquent in making child-support payments.

Lieutenants Mills and Bane will conduct any studies he needs to assist in his review of policies, Mr. O'Neill said.

Mr. O'Neill also will receive assistance from the state attorney general's office.

At the request of Mrs. Rehrmann and Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly on April 8, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has ordered the attorney general to begin an investigation of the detention center.

That request was spurred by recent publicity surrounding how the sheriff's office handled the suspicious death of William Martin Ford, a 28-year-old Delaware man found dead in his cell with a pillowcase around his neck March 1, 1992.

Mr. Ford was strangled, according to a report by the medical examiner's office. He was serving 30 days on a drunken-driving conviction. No one has been charged.

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