Letter To The Editor: Sheriff Controversy Enters Litigation Phase

By GEORGE CHANDLER
Los Alamos

The Sheriff controversy is now in the litigation phase and it appears a decision approaches on actions filed by the Sheriff and the County, which have been consolidated into one action. In a nutshell, the Sheriff asks the court for an injunction requiring the county to fully fund a second law enforcement agency in Los Alamos County, and the County seeks an injunction preventing the Sheriff from performing any law enforcement duties. In the hope I can shed some light on the issues, I offer a brief summary.

The Sheriff’s position has always been that state law and the constitution mandate a sheriff in every county, and that the authority contained in the constitutional provisions that created the Incorporated Home Rule County of Los Alamos cannot be interpreted to remove that mandate. But the Sheriff’s argument is just wrong on at least two counts.

The whole reason for having an incorporated county (a county that combines the authorities of county and municipal governments within the geographic boundaries of a single county) is to eliminate the duplication of governmental functions that are separately established in the Municipal Code and county statutes. The charter of any incorporated county may specify which officers shall be elected and which appointed, and which officers shall perform the duties of state officers set out in the statutes.

Thus our charter provides for appointed, not elected Treasurer and Surveyor, and some of the duties of the County Clerk are given to the County Manager. We do not have a county commission and a city council, we have a county council. We do have both a sheriff and a police department – both were retained in the 1968 charter because of a belief at the time that we were required to have a sheriff, and we did – even then – have both a limited sheriff and a police department under the old county commission. But these are redundant and having both is just a waste of money, not to mention the confusion involved in performing law enforcement duties (who do you call?). Note that by statute, even in ordinary municipalities police departments are given all the authority of the Sheriff within the city boundaries.

The second count is that we have adopted home rule under another provision of the constitution and the authority to assign duties is very similar, but the legal basis is slightly different. Here the emphasis is on self-determination – home rule is authority to govern ourselves any way we wish so long as we don’t violate general state law or do things that are explicitly prohibited by state law.

This is a long-established form of local government that has survived many court challenges similar to this one, and it provides many benefits to Los Alamos and the several New Mexico cities that have adopted it other than this one.

This litigation follows a prolonged, acrimonious, and wasteful debate that originated with the current sheriff, and at least two of his potential successors seem determined to carry it on. In addition to the legal aspects discussed here, citizens concerned by this problem should try to understand the larger, statewide (and beyond) context. Who’s driving this? 

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