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Sheriff, commissioners spar over work gloves

Apr 11, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

After Fremont County Sheriff Skip Hornecker on Tuesday launched litigation against county commissioners over a rejected payment for work gloves, the county board approved the voucher -- but not without harsh criticism for the top lawman.

Hornecker last month submitted the $69.90 voucher for two pairs of gloves for deputies, but commissioners refused to pay the amount because the gloves are not part of the taxpayer-funded uniform.

Commissioners noted the deputies also have latex gloves at their disposal and could have avoided getting blood on their other gloves, which necessitated replacement.

The sheriff's contention has been that the commissioners do not have legal authority to approve his purchases as a county elected official. He also said his budget contains funds to cover the purchase within a specific line item.

Commissioners failed to approve the purchase on March 20 and didn't take action during following meetings on April 3 and 10, leading Hornecker to enlist Lander attorney James Whiting to file a notice of appeal.

Whiting's appeal states the sheriff has "the discretion to expend the monies budgeted to him to best serve the citizens of Fremont County in accordance with his statutory duty to keep the peace as well as other duties required of him by law."

After a roughly 30-minute closed-door executive session with Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn and deputy attorney Jodi Darrough to discuss potential litigation, commissioners voted to accept the voucher.

"The only reason that I'm moving this is because according to our esteemed colleagues it's what we have to do," commissioner Travis Becker said after making the motion to approve the payment.

However, Becker and other commissioners slammed the sheriff and openly condemned the spending and their own lack of authority in the matter.

Calling it a "gross misappropriation of public funds," Becker said, "The sheriff is replacing personal gear using taxpayer money."

"To not use the proper gear and then have their own personal gear reimbursed is wrong," he said.

"I really don't like this ... but state statutes apparently say we can't reject the sheriff's request, Becker added. "I think it's a serious misappropriation of public funds ... but we can't stop it because it's procured by an elected official."

Commissioner Keja Whiteman expressed doubt about the reason the board should approve the voucher.

"I'm not fully convinced statutes prohibit us from denying vouchers," she said.

"I think it's ridiculous of the potential for litigation resulting from a $65 or $69 voucher, but I think there will be repercussions in future budgets," Whiteman said.

Commission chairman Doug Thompson levied accusations that statements made by the sheriff are false.

"It's been misrepresented by the sheriff" the voucher is "for replacement equipment," he said.

Thompson disagreed with the contention that the work gloves constitute "replacement equipment" because they are not part of the uniform the county buys for its sheriff's deputies.

"I believe he's falsified a document right here," Thompson said, referring to the appeal notice. "I don't believe there is a line item for personal possessions for sheriff's office employees."

He also noted concern about the "slippery slope" created due to the commission's lack of authority to give final approval in purchase requests by elected officials.

"I am also concerned that statute leaves a gray area for a commission to deny a voucher by any elected official," he said. "I believe the Legislature must look at this gray area and address it. If the commission has no way to control expenditures, I believe the taxpayers will be the ultimate loser in this situation."

Thompson was the sole vote against the voucher, with commissioners Dennis Christensen, Whiteman and Becker approving the purchase. Commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson did not attend the meeting.

In addition to the approving the nearly $70 purchase, the commission will have other costs associated with the sheriff's action, Thompson said.

"I believe probably we will be presented with an additional voucher for outside legal counsel in the future," he said, referring to Hornecker's hiring of Whiting for legal representation.

Earlier in the day, during the sheriff's monthly report for commissioners, Hornecker again presented the request for discussion.

In a prepared statement he read to commissioners, Hornecker said that "Wyoming Statutes and case law do not provide authority to the commission to reject an expenditure approved by an elected official such as the sheriff."

"If this process were indeed founded by law, then any elected official would incur personal financial risk for any day-to-day operational expenses given the commission's theory that the board has the authority to second-guess and reject the expenditure," he said.

During the discussion, Becker continued to emphasize that the expenditure is not part of the provided uniform. "The simple fact is it is not approved clothing," he said.

In the ambulance department, "they deal with blood and things of that nature all the time, yet they use the latex gloves," he said.

Also, in the private sector, if someone stains clothing or ruins a pair of shoes, "my employer is not going to pay for them," Becker said. "Why should the taxpayers have to pay for personal gear?"