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The board and the sheriff: a complicated relationship


Fifteen to one is hardly a fair fight — unless you’re an elected official.

Over the past year and a half, a lot of attention has been paid to the relationship between Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns and the Jefferson County Board of Legislators.

Pyrotechnics have detonated between the two parties over 15 rescinded retirement party invitations, four lawsuits, three external investigations, two suspensions, two arrests, two vacant positions, one bottle of Red Stag bourbon and one giant armored vehicle.

But as the two bodies came to blows, a clear inequity emerged: despite its best efforts, the board of 15 has been unable to control the hand of the sheriff, who wields considerable power as an elected official and the chief law enforcement officer of the county.

Sheriff John P. Burns was a 19-year veteran of the department when he announced he would run for sheriff as a Democrat in May 2002, promising to improve morale and return the department to a focus on road patrol and basic public safety.

On New Year’s Day 2003, Mr. Burns was sworn in as sheriff of Jefferson County in the packed courtroom of the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building. He was the first Democrat to hold the position since the mid-1980s.

In attendance were county legislators, City Council members, community leaders and citizens of Jefferson County, including the outgoing sheriff, James L. Lafferty.

“John is going to find out he’s in for a ride. Nobody really knows until they get in here,” Mr. Lafferty said. “It was a wild ride for me, too.”

He almost immediately began butting heads with legislators over a decision to move the county’s dispatch center from the guidance of the sheriff’s department to the office of fire and emergency management.

The board and the sheriff were working toward reaching a compromise when a potential lawsuit from the New York State Sheriffs’ Association derailed the negotiations.

The board eventually got its way, voting 11-4 to hand over management of the center to a civilian.

Since then, fights have emerged over a whole host of incidents, including moving deputies to 12-hour shifts, jail overcrowding, providing security at the Watertown International Airport, ATV and snowmobile trails and equipment acquisition.

Sometimes the sheriff got his way, as in the case of the move to 12-hour shifts, and at other times the board emerged victorious, as in the repeated clashes over jail construction.

The feud reached a high point of absurdity when charges of intimidating a witness, official misconduct and cruelty to animals were recommended by the department against Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III for an incident that allegedly occurred at the county’s dog shelter in 2007. The charges were dismissed as baseless.

But for the most part, the clashes between the board and the sheriff were related primarily to budgetary issues, not misconduct or malfeasance.

Perhaps for that reason, the board and the sheriff were often able to patch up their wounds and work through their differences, managing at times even to inject a little lightheartedness into the exchange.

But the frosty relationship, sometimes punctuated by brief attempts at humor, changed forever in April 2012, when Sackets Harbor attorney Charu Narang filed a $50 million lawsuit against the county on behalf of Deputy Krystal G. Rice, claiming that a male detective took topless photos of her for use in an online pedophile investigation — photos that promptly vanished without a trace.

That lawsuit kicked off a very difficult year for Mr. Burns.

More lawsuits emerged and two department employees were suspended for allegedly carrying on relationships with convicted felons, including the second-highest official at the department, Undersheriff Andrew R. Neff.

Though rumblings began on the board after the lawsuit was filed by Deputy Rice, it was a series of events in December that galvanized legislators into action.

On Dec. 1, Deputy Adam B. Hallett was found unresponsive asleep in his patrol vehicle off County Route 72 several hours after he went off duty, according to reports prepared for the Board of Legislators by Mr. Burns and County Attorney David J. Paulsen.

Questions emerged over conflicting accounts of the incident and the board called for an external investigation.

After the board received a disappointing reply from the Bureau of Public Integrity at the state attorney general’s office, Jefferson County Judge Kim H. Martusewicz appointed Oneida District Attorney Scott D. McNamara special prosecutor in the case.

Then, for a brief period, a delicate calm descended on the relationship, only to be broken in September by the arrest of another corrections officer and a fourth lawsuit.

But strangely enough, given the strong reactions in previous incidents and the tensions brewing beneath the surface, there was little outcry from the board.

Perhaps that was because board members had finally come to terms with the fact that there was very little they could actually do about the situation.

“The damage is already done. You hope that the pattern does change, but the board’s hands are tied,” said Legislator John D. Peck, R-Great Bend.

The issue hinges on the office of the sheriff itself, which gives Mr. Burns broad powers with which the board cannot interfere.

As an elected official, Mr. Burns can be censured only by the public, which has the opportunity to vote a candidate into the sheriff’s office once every four years.

And as the top law enforcement officer in the county, Mr. Burns is on equal footing with state police and city authorities and can be removed from office only by the governor.

“He’s an elected official, accountable to the public. We don’t have control over the sheriff. The people do,” said Robert J. Thomas, a former police chief and one of Mr. Burns’s first supervisors.

But the board, as steward of taxpayer funds, does have jurisdiction over the sheriff’s budget.

“The only control we have is over his budget. You’re not swinging axes, you’re swinging dollar bills,” Mr. Thomas said.

But those powers are not nearly as influential as they might appear to be, according to Legislator Scott A. Gray, chairman of the board’s Finance and Rules Committee.

Employee compensation, including overtime pay, is tightly controlled by the state Department of Labor.

And state and federally mandated regulations greatly restrict the leverage the board can bring to bear in most negotiations with the sheriff, Mr. Gray said.

Ultimately, however, the upper hand held by the sheriff is one of perception.

“When you start taking away from his budget, you’re taking away from public safety,” Mr. Thomas said, in a frank assessment of the sheriff’s ability to control the message surrounding money spent on his department.

The question of perception came into stark relief last month during a heated debate over a heavily armored vehicle the department acquired from the Department of Defense through a federal law enforcement support program.

The vehicle, a $600,000, 20-ton, International MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicle, was given to the county for free, though many legislators expressed concern over the message that the vehicle would send and the maintenance costs it might cause the county to incur.

In the weeks leading up to the board’s October meeting, the consensus among legislators seemed to be that a resolution to accept the donation of the vehicle would be voted down.

During the meeting, four county residents appeared before the board to protest the vehicle and many others sat in the audience, concerned but silent.

But after hearing compelling testimony about the need for the vehicle from sheriff’s deputies, the board approved it 8-6 for the department’s use.

Every legislator who voted against the vehicle seemed to have a slightly different rationale for doing so.

Some, like Mr. Peck, objected to the vehicle on philosophical grounds; others, like James A. Nabywaniec, R-Calcium, thought it was excessive and sent the wrong message to residents, and still others, like board Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown, thought it would prove too expensive to maintain over time.

But there were also one or two legislators who viewed the debate over the MRAP as a way to exercise some measure of control over the sheriff and send him a message that the seemingly steady stream of problems needed to stop.

But that effort failed.

“We didn’t even stop the tank from rolling in,” said Legislator Michael W. Behling, R-Adams.

Mr. Behling, perhaps because he is stepping down from the board this year, was unique among the legislators in that he emphatically faulted Mr. Burns for the problems at the department.

“The sheriff over there, I don’t think he’s a very strong supervisor,” he said. “Jim Lafferty was a straight-laced guy. Sheriff Burns is a little loose; he lets things go a little more before clamping down.”

Others were more diplomatic in their assessment of the leadership situation.

“There are issues in that department that point back to management and there are others that are isolated incidents that could happen in any department,” said Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville.

“Over the last few years, the Sheriff’s Department has had their share of issues,” said Legislator Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown. “I’m sure the sheriff is doing his best to resolve them. When it comes down to a vote, I try to remember that my job is not to tell him how to do his. It’s to approve or deny spending, and that should be based on the merit of the need and not the behavior of a few people in the department.”

But board members acknowledge there is concern in the community about the issues that have come to light over the last year and a half, even if many people still stand behind many of the department’s employees.

“I’m out in the public a lot ... the public is upset about the Sheriff’s Department. There is a concern about credibility at the Sheriff’s Department and the effectiveness of the Sheriff’s Department because of all that’s gone on,” said Allen T. Drake, D-Theresa. “But there are a lot of good deputies, jail guards and employees who work for the Sheriff’s Department, and I hope you include that in your article.”

The tension between the board and the sheriff is not unique to Mr. Burns.

“There’ve been clashes with other sheriff’s and the board,” Mr. Thomas said.

In the end, the question may not be so much be about what the board could, should or is willing to do, but rather about what Mr. Burns will do.

Unfortunately, repeated requests to interview Mr. Burns for this article were spurned by the sheriff, who has not answered calls from the Times since July. Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau also declined to comment.

Though he has not officially announced his plans, Mr. Burns has given every indication that he intends to retire at the end of his current term, which expires Dec. 31, 2014. Still, some people speak of his imminent departure in conspiratorial terms, as though he may change his mind at the last moment.

Before the recent string of incidents, he had proven to be an enormously popular sheriff, and he has emerged victorious from three heated election seasons.

At the same time, others have begun to emerge from the woodwork to take aim at the position many colloquially refer to as the “top cop” of the county.

John R. Bocciolatt, a Watertown native and 28-year veteran of the Portland, Ore., police, has indicated he would run for the position as a Republican. After news of his ambitions came to the fore, Jefferson County Democratic Committee Chairman Ronald H. Cole said he has spoken with a couple of people interested in running for the position. Though they are both local law enforcement officers, Mr. Cole, who is a former police officer himself, declined to provide their names or the names of the agencies for which they work.

Mr. Cole said their candidacies would be announced after Jan. 1.

Virtually all legislators said that political parties did not enter the picture when it came to the race for sheriff.

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