NOWATA — A 30-year law enforcement veteran has come out of retirement to lead the beleaguered Nowata County Sheriff’s Office.
Nowata County commissioners appointed Mirta Hallett on Wednesday to be interim sheriff after most of the office’s employees resigned at the start of the week amid turmoil surrounding the shuttered jail. The appointment came during an emergency meeting to address the issues with the Sheriff’s Office.
“We’ve already had some officers — men and women that have been in law enforcement from this county — that are willing to step in and help us,” the new interim sheriff said.
Hallett said she already has five deputies who are volunteering their time to help protect the county — two certified deputies and three certified reserves.
Five sheriffs have resigned from the office since 2015. Hallett’s husband, James Hallett, served as sheriff for 18 years before his resignation and retirement in 2015.
James Hallett gave her one of his badges after she was sworn in.
Mirta Hallett retired from the Sheriff’s Office about 3½ years ago at the rank of major. She was jail administrator during part of her three-decade tenure.
“I’m going to try my best,” she said. “I worked downstairs (in the Sheriff’s Office) for 30-plus years, and I believe I can be an asset to this county. I believe I can get the jail in order; I believe I can get deputies back on the road to protect our community.”
The latest round of resignations, which included Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett and Undersheriff Mark Kirschner, was prompted by a district judge’s ordering the county jail reopened. Barnett had shuttered the jail on Feb. 28 after a carbon monoxide leak caused the hospitalization of four employees and the evacuation of the jail.
In her resignation letter, Barnett noted several concerns that do not “comply with constitutional standards” for a jail, including mold, exposed wiring, and plumbing issues that occasionally allowed methane gases to permeate the jail.
Mirta Hallett said she would not reopen the jail “until I have proper documentation indicating that the jail is safe for inmates to return.”
After a motion to appoint Hallett was made, Nowata County District 1 Commissioner Burke LaRue read a letter into the record, thanking Barnett and Kirschner for their service in the Sheriff’s Office.
“Even with the DOC (funding) program, the department was tight years ago,” LaRue said. Without that money, “it’s been tougher on all sheriffs up to this date.”
The Department of Corrections program that LaRue referenced was a contract that the state agency terminated several years ago. The contract for holding state prisoners provided about $400,000 to $500,000 to the Sheriff’s Office annually, the World reported previously.
Nowata County typically has a general fund balance of around a million dollars to appropriate among all of its offices annually, so the Sheriff’s Office relied heavily on the DOC contract funds, Nowata County District 2 Commissioner Doug Sonenberg said.
Mirta Hallett, he said, was the reason the county was able to maintain the contract.
“(Nowata) was one of the first that got it, and it was because of (Mirta Hallett) that it went as long as it did in Nowata County,” Sonenberg said.
She and Sonenberg said the jail regularly passed its inspections and was regularly audited during that time. Records of jail inspections, which are conducted by a state agency, were not immediately available Wednesday.
County commissioners and Mirta Hallett said the other county offices have offered to assist the Sheriff’s Office.
“Every elected official and their staff in this courthouse have offered to give up their time, so I think we’re on the road to changing things a little bit,” Hallett said.
She is to serve until the next regular election for sheriff in 2020.