Sheriff Needs Lesson on the Limits of Power

Anyone who has paid attention to the news over the past few weeks knows it’s a tough time for our current county sheriff. But I don’t intend to pile on here. Instead, I’d like to focus on the limits of power and the need for legal and consistent county policy.

The relationship between commissioners, who are ultimately responsible and accountable for county government, and row officers, like the sheriff, is an interesting dynamic. As independent elected officials, row officers have certain rights, like hiring staff, setting office goals and managing their employees (to a certain extent). Commissioners set countywide employment policy, can pass countywide ordinances and, most importantly, control the budget. Every elected official in county government (including me) has specific duties, as well as limits to his or her power. It’s that part, the limits of authority, that the current sheriff is having trouble accepting. And it’s that misunderstanding – or perhaps, arrogance – that is putting the county at risk.

All the recent hoopla began with the sheriff wanting the board of commissioners to pass a countywide ordinance basically granting him the authority to refuse to enforce any new federal firearms laws. This was clearly an attempt to placate a certain voting bloc because, first, it would be absolutely unenforceable. Second, and most importantly, it would be illegal – we cannot refuse to enforce the law, nor grant that authority to any other entity. Neither can a county sheriff. In news accounts about the proposed ordinance local law professors described his proposed ordinance as most certainly unconstitutional.

It all comes back to understanding our roles. In a third-class county in Pennsylvania, like Westmoreland, the sheriff is not the chief law enforcement officer. The office has some very basic duties – transport prisoners, deliver warrants, provide courtroom security, and, yes, issue gun permits. Neither the sheriff nor his deputies are police officers. But don’t take my word for it. Here are the words of Supreme Court Justice Thomas G. Saylor writing for the majority in the recent case of The Commonwealth v. Marconi…

“The members of this court maintain great respect and express gratitude for sheriffs and their deputies in the performance of indispensable public services within their realm. We reiterate, however, that they are not police officers – nor are they invested with general police powers beyond the authority to arrest for in-presence breaches of the peace and felonies – in the absence of express legislative designation.” Justice Saylor was joined in the result by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd and J. Michael Eakin.

Next, the sheriff announced his intention to begin drug testing his employees, calling it a “proactive” measure (never mind that his revelation came only after the media exposed a rash of incidents regarding some of his recent hires and drug abuse. It is absolutely the definition of “reactive”). While this plays like a good public relations move, it’s contrary to good public policy. We were advised by legal counsel (our own, as well as outside lawyers) that to summarily begin testing, without a consistent comprehensive policy, was a bad idea and was found in court to be a violation of a person’s fourth amendment rights. (An odd twist, I know, given that the sheriff likes to call himself a “Constitutional Sheriff”.) We advised him of these facts through our HR department. He callously discarded it, putting the county at risk.

We recognize that county government is not immune to the illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse epidemic going on nationwide. My commissioner colleagues and I have been working diligently for some time to develop a reasonable, enforceable and defensible countywide drug testing policy. The county has long had pre-employment drug screening of our law enforcement professionals, like our park police and probation officers, as well as our 911 operators and corrections officers. Now we are finalizing a protocol to test applicants for all positions before they begin employment. We have recently negotiated random drug testing into some of our collective bargaining agreements, and are working with our various unions to incorporate it into future contracts. We are doing it the right way. The sheriff is merely reacting to bad press with rash actions and failing again to realize the limitations of his authority.

We will finalize a consistent, comprehensive countywide employee drug testing policy soon. It is imperative that we do. We owe it to the taxpayers to hold our employees to a high standard of conduct. The often vulnerable people we provide services for need to know that those serving them are clean and sober. And it’s an effort to help in some way thwart the drug problem in our region. But it is the commissioners’ responsibility to set and enforce county policy. We are, after all, ultimately responsible to fund every expense, defend every action and oversee every employee.

The recent actions by the sheriff are reckless. Combined with his other well-publicized recent personnel problems and the latest media disclosure of a missing gun that was never reported, it makes me wonder what’s next. This is getting quite serious.

It is no secret that I did not campaign for nor did I vote for the current sheriff. I was very clearly and openly for the other guy. But the issues I raised above are not partisan politics. My Republican colleagues share the same concerns as me and to their credit have stood up to this madness. They’ve also joined me in refusing the sheriff’s numerous unjustified requests for more personnel, new vehicles and more. Our power of the purse has been the only tool to somewhat keep this guy in check.

While these issues are not political, the job of sheriff is, and I have heard a lot of buyer’s remorse from voters. Some have even inquired to me about how to achieve his resignation. I am not willing to promote that idea, but it would be most certainly in the best interest of the county for the sheriff to recognize the limits of his authority, respect ours, and focus on the limited duties of his office.