Wall advised to seek attorney
Commissioners: Sheriff's policies have legal, fiscal risks
October 7, 2007
Steamboat Springs — The Routt County Board of Commissioners has advised Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall to seek legal counsel, citing Sheriff’s Office policies that commissioners say “present significant legal or financial risk for the county.”
In a letter dated Oct. 2 – the latest correspondence in nearly four months of ongoing policy discussions – the commissioners and County Attorney John Merrill cite inconsistent and incomplete Sheriff’s Office policies that “require modification” and may not be in compliance with state and federal laws.
“Based upon advice John (Merrill) has given us, we believe that we should advise you at this time that you will need to seek legal advice from attorneys other than those in the County Attorney’s Office from now on,” reads the letter signed by all three commissioners. “You will need to adjust your budget request for 2008 accordingly.”
Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said independent attorney fees for the Sheriff’s Office could reach $100,000.
Wall said he does not anticipate spending close to that amount on legal fees.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m shocked at that number. I don’t intend on this being an ongoing cost. I don’t see huge legal bills related to this.”
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The Sheriff’s Office already is incurring legal bills related to the ongoing policy discussions between Wall and county commissioners.
After receiving a legal memo from Merrill in July, Wall hired the Law Offices of Ralph Cantafio, P.C., to represent the Sheriff’s Office, which Wall asserts is not subject to the same administrative oversight as other county departments.
The county recently approved a $3,100 legal bill that the Sheriff’s Office already has acquired. Wall said Cantafio charges $150 an hour. Wall said he intends to keep Cantafio as the Sheriff’s Office attorney.
Other county’s policies?
Wall recently posted several dozen Sheriff’s Office policies on a new Web site, http://www.co.routt.co.us/sheriff/.
In a three-page document attached to the commissioners’ Oct. 2 letter, Merrill presented a detailed review of the policies and cited numerous “areas where there are legal problems or areas of conflict between the sheriff’s policy and the county policy.”
Merrill questioned the origin of many of Wall’s policies.
“Most of these policies seem to have been copied from the policies of some other county’s sheriff,” Merrill wrote. “There are several references to Boulder County, at least one reference to the need to maintain good relationships with the 20th Judicial District (Boulder County), numerous references to Sheriff’s (Office) sections, divisions and ranks which do not exist in the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, references to county offices and practices that do not exist : and there is at least one policy signature line for “Joseph K. Pelle” as sheriff.”
Pelle is Boulder County Sheriff and president of County Sheriffs of Colorado.
Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush called the mistakes “an obvious lack of review and oversight.”
Wall acknowledged that some of the policies need corrections, and said he used templates from Boulder, Larimer, Pueblo and Douglas counties for some of Routt County’s policies.
“I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We wanted to get our policies online as soon as possible. Those were some growing pains of operating our first Web site.”
Wall said the mistakes are “simple things to fix.” Wall said he is happy to modify the policies, especially those that do not comply with state or federal law, but maintained that he is a separate elected official and does not need the county’s “approval” to run his office.
Wall said Merrill’s contention that Sheriff’s Office policies could propose risk to the county could take more research and review.
Specifically, Merrill expressed concerns about Sheriff’s Office policies that present contradicting regulations about staff pay, could violate the Fair Labor Standards Act administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, and do not comply with the federal Armstrong/Walker Excessive Force Amendment.
Wall said the excessive force policy, which was adopted Sept. 1 with different language than a policy certified by commissioners in August, already has been updated. Wall said he will continue to review policies and amend them as necessary to be in compliance with state and federal law.
“We’ll continue to update and change our policies regarding public safety just as the county has updated their policies from time to time,” Wall said. “It isn’t the end. Nothing is etched is stone.”
Mitsch Bush said her concerns are the county would still assume “legal and financial responsibility and liability” if anything happened as a result of an inconsistent Sheriff’s Office policy.
“I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen,” she said. “The taxpayers are going to be paying for the inconsistencies with these policies. Let’s hope nothing happens.”
Stahoviak said the county has been more than happy to allow other county department heads to modify or create “stand alone” policies, as long as the policies met county approval.
Mitsch Bush agreed, noting that the ongoing policy discussions are not partisan in nature.
“I hope the public and the press doesn’t see this as partisan in any way,” she said. “It’s not just (Stahoviak) the Republican questioning Gary. All three of the commissioners want all policies to protect the people of Routt County. It isn’t about personalities. It’s about what’s on paper in black and white.”
Mitsch Bush said it is inappropriate for the county to tell Wall what to do, how to run his office, or which policies he should adopt or alter, but that she hopes Wall will continue to work with the county on the issue.
“As an elected official, your policies need to be detailed, open, legally defensible and fiscally responsible to the public,” she said.
Stahoviak said the county’s actions are not “nitpicking.”
“I know the sheriff thinks we’re nitpicking here. We aren’t. We’re trying to protect the citizens of Routt County through our authority as the Board of County Commissioners,” she said. “Our goal is to protect the county from any undue financial risk because of liabilities that are being created.”
Mitsch Bush agreed.
“I think Gary does see it as a power struggle,” she said. “We don’t.”
Although the commissioners and Wall might not agree about policies or their exact relationship, they do agree on one thing: they want to move forward.
“I wouldn’t think that this issue would create such a problem that we can’t have a working relationship with our sheriff,” Stahoviak said. “That would be a concern of ours.”
“This has nothing to do with not getting along,” Wall said. “I want to get along with the Board of County Commissioners. We’re all in this together, we just have some differing opinions.”