Should the Sheriff be Subject to the Ethics Ordinances and the Inspector General?

Over the last few years, Palm Beach County has taken a great leap in establishing ethical standards and implementing a watchdog function that is helping dispel the reputation of “corruption county”. First, by ordinance, the County Commission and staff included themselves under the jurisdiction of a Commission on Ethics, and the Office of Inspector General. Then, in November of 2010, 70% of the voters supported a charter amendment to extend the umbrella to the 38 municipalities of the county, and the Solid Waste Authority brought themselves under it by inter-local agreement. By May of this year, the new ordinances (including a Code of Ethics and Lobbyist rules) were fully implemented.

There are still pockets of county government that are exempt from all this however. The school board is considering the question and may take the plunge at a later time, but the Constitutional Officers (Sheriff, Clerk, Tax Collector, Supervisor of Elections, Property Appraiser, County Attorney and Public Defender) are specifically excluded. The most significant of these of course is the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office with its 4000 employees and $500M annual budget.

TAB believes if it is good for the county and cities, it should be good for the Sheriff, particularly given the wall that exists between PBSO and the public regarding disclosure of information. Very little financial (or other) information is readily available for scrutiny, and Chapter 119 (Open Records Law) procedures are needed to obtain anything not specifically mandated for disclosure under statute.

Just as the SWA took this step voluntarily, it has been proposed that the Sheriff enter into an inter-local agreement with the county to become part of the county ethics process. To this end, Chairman Karen Marcus formally requested that they do so.

“No Way, No How” was the synopsis of the 9 page response.

Responding for the Sheriff, Colonel Joe Bradshaw in the department of Legal Affairs, explained that they asked for a legal opinion from the General Counsel of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, R.W Evans. In Mr. Evans opinion, the “…County Code of Ethics cannot be applied to the Sheriff under any circumstances, because the investigation of law enforcement and corrections officers is preempted by Florida Law. Further, any oversight of the Sheriff’s Office by the Commission on Ethics and the Inspector General exceeds the County’s authority and improperly encroaches upon the constitutional office of the Sheriff.”

Based on this opinion, Colonel Bradshaw concludes “.. the Sheriff cannot enter into an interagency agreement with the county to extend the jurisdiction of the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics and the Inspector General to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.”

In Mr. Evans response, he notes that “This issue is critically important to FLorida Sheriffs..” and that this is “.. the position of the Florida Sheriff’s Association of which I am General Counsel.”

In the opinion, several Florida Statues and case law are cited, pointing out that the Legislature has drawn a protective moat around law enforcement agencies which excludes interference from local elected officials in any way. In a sense, PBSO is “above the law” as far as the county is concerned and no public influence on PBSO is possible without changes in Legislation. We see this time and again – if the county asks the Sheriff for budget cuts he threatens to go to Tallahassee to overturn them. If existing benefits are questioned, the “PBSO Career Service Protection Act” is cited. There is effectively no local control over the Sheriff’s office save the ballot box.

Given the above, is there no other choice but to accept the opinion of the Sheriff’s Association? The voters of Broward County did not think so, and recently passed a charter amendment with 72% of the vote, placing their constitutionals (including the Broward Sheriff) under the County Code of Ethics. To date (to our knowledge), this has not been challenged in court on constitutional or other grounds, although Palm Beach County Attorney Denise Neiman has stated that Broward has crossed the constitutional line and a challenge would succeed. We shall see.

So what can be done about this? There are groups out there that are critical about the way PBSO spends taxpayer money (among other things – see pbsotalk.com). We have no way of knowing if information from those sources are accurate, but much of it appears to come from insiders. In fact, there is currently no outside oversight of PBSO such as the Office of Inspector General brings to other parts of county government, and we think that is a dangerous situation.

We support Chairman Marcus’ call for an inter-local agreement with PBSO. If there are legislative roadblocks then we should work through them with the delegation. We should also have a serious discussion of charter changes which would tear down the constitutional barriers to public oversight of PBSO.

For the full text of Colonel Bradshaw’s response to Karen Marcus, including the opinion of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, click HERE.

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