Utah sheriffs push for greater autonomy from county governments

Monday , September 18, 2017 - 5:15 AM5 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

A state legislator who often rides along on police calls is planning a bill to prevent county commissions from micromanaging sheriff’s offices.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, has opened a bill file for the 2018 Legislature and said he is working with the Utah Sheriffs’ Association to stop separation-of-powers encroachment against the elected lawmen.

“The Sheriffs’ Association sees a big divide in county government,” Ray said in an interview. “Some county commissions are trying to run sheriff’s departments and dictating county policy that is counter to what the sheriff’s departments need to do.”

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He said state laws governing sheriffs’ powers have not been changed substantially since 1952.

“It’s a very gray area and things are a lot different than in the 1950s,” Ray said.

His proposal comes at a time of heightened public scrutiny of Utah sheriff’s offices. Davis County, for instance, had six jail deaths in 2016, contributing to Utah’s nation-leading frequency of in-custody deaths. And the Daggett County sheriff and key deputies were criminally charged with abusing inmates.

Ray said sheriff’s agencies in four counties, including one on the Wasatch Front, “are contemplating suing their county commissioners for telling the sheriff how he needs to run his office.”

He declined to identify the counties. He said he hopes to have a draft of his bill within 30 days and “the real discussion can happen then.”

Ray was noncommital when asked whether Davis County is one of those points of conflict.

Legal fight brewing over sheriffs’ powers?

Davis County Commissioner Jim Smith, the county’s liaison with the sheriff’s office, did not return a phone call. Sheriff Todd Richardson also did not respond to a request for comment.

County Clerk/Auditor Curtis Koch declined to comment on Ray’s proposal, but he said checks and balances are vital.

“Any organization has to have policies and procedures to govern and be efficient and be effective,” Koch said. “That’s why you have financial policies for the executives, the legislative branch and the auditors to ensure the public’s monies are spent appropriately and according to policy and procedures.”

Asked whether auditors have had conflicts with the sheriff’s office in recent years, Koch said, “We’re always as an auditor’s office in communication with various departments about policy issues.”

Koch added, “Any solid organization should be willing to adhere to its own policies and procedures and ... be doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

County Attorney Troy Rawlings said via email that he’s “confident the list of four does not include Davis County. Based on what is actually occurring with respect to the County Auditor and County Commission (and their interactions with all departments, including the Sheriff's Office), Davis County as an entity would prevail. Sheriff's Association claims would fail.”

Rawlings added, “Any evidentiary hearings with documents, witnesses, exhibits and argument on such issues would have great educational value for any citizen who can attend.”

Ray said he expects opposition from county governments, but he argued responsibilities need to be better delineated.

“The sheriff really does need some autonomy,” he said. “The sheriff would investigate their (county officials’) issues too, potentially. What we’ve seen is interference in hiring and vehicle programs and they are actually trying to run the budget by line item.”

Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel, president of the Sheriffs’ Association, said Friday the group backs Ray’s effort.

“I am Beaver County’s chief law enforcement officer, I am elected, and that’s the way it should be,” Noel said. “If people don’t like how I do my job, they can vote me out.”

He said he hopes Ray’s legislation will “make sure those things are kept as a constitutional office. We can’t have other elected positions or mayors to infringe on our responsibilities. I always say I answer to the people; I don’t answer to the commissioners.”

Noel said he has heard from other sheriffs about “outrageous” infringements by commissioners and other elected officials, but he declined to give specifics because he doesn’t know details of those reports.

Rides along with police ‘to see what goes down on the street’

Tension in county government or not, the Davis Sheriff’s Office has a staunch advocate in Ray.

Ray was there with police in downtown Salt Lake City in mid-August when authorities launched Operation Rio Grande to attack rampant crime in the area surrounding an overflowing homeless shelter.

Heb borrowed a sheriff’s vest from Richardson and accompanied law enforcers as they made arrests. A KSL report showed Ray talking to a rumpled man on a sidewalk as officers fanned out around the homeless shelter.

Ray said House Speaker Greg Hughes had asked him to work with other state and local officials to help plan the operation, which involved many agencies, including the Davis Sheriff’s Office.

“I was out there with them and someone said, ‘You should really have a vest on,’” Ray said. “The sheriff had a spare one in his vehicle and got it for me.”

Ray said over the years he’s ridden along with police from many agencies, including the sheriff’s office, Utah Highway Patrol, Salt Lake City Police and Utah Adult Probation and Parole.

“We go out there to see what we need to be doing on the legislative side ... to see what goes down on the street,” Ray said.

He said up-close insight helped him in the crafting of a bill in 2014 to crack down on the synthetic drug spice.

Ray is a member of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. He gained national attention in 2015 when a bill he sponsored reinstated the firing squad as an option for executions in Utah.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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