Milder: Risk Of Maintaining Sheriff’s Department

Former County Councilor

What does the lawsuit stemming from former Governor Gary Johnson’s support of Indian gaming have to do with the current risk associated with retention of the Los Alamos Sheriff’s Office? As it turns out, quite a lot.

During Gary Johnson’s first campaign for governor he promised New Mexico’s tribal nations that he would support their efforts to establish casinos. Once elected, and without authorization from the NM legislature, Governor Johnson executed gaming compacts with the reservations. He did this against advice from state legislators and the attorney general informing him that he did not have authority to do so.

A bipartisan group of state legislators filed a lawsuit against the governor for acting outside his authority and the attorney general could not defend him. You see, officials can only be indemnified when they act within their legal authority. By acting outside his legal authority, Governor Johnson was forced to retain his own legal counsel and pay for his defense out of his own pocket.

The governor lost the case. Fortunately for the governor, the legislature later bailed him out by passing legislation authorizing gaming compacts.

Los Alamos County, or more specifically the sheriff, faces a similar risk because the County Charter prohibits the Sheriff’s Department from performing or duplicating “…those duties in this Charter or by ordinance or resolution assigned or delegated to the County’s Police Department.” The sheriff, however, feels that state statute takes precedence over the County’s home-rule Charter and Code (ordinances). This conflict poses a financial risk to the County, the sheriff, and potentially his deputies.

What is that risk? Well, if the sheriff and/or his deputies perform an action prohibited by County Charter, even though the action might be authorized to other county sheriffs in state statute, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office (i.e. the County), the sheriff, and his deputies could be sued. Similar to Governor Johnson’s experience, the County would not be able to personally indemnify (defend) the sheriff, and his deputies, for actions outside the authority granted in the Charter. Not only is there a financial risk to the County but a personal financial risk to the sheriff and his deputies. (And, there could be other ramifications associated with such a lawsuit; too esoteric for this short letter.)

This risk has been present since the adoption of the County Charter. It has been mitigated, however, by previous sheriffs’ strict adherence to the limited authority granted in the Charter. However, the current disagreement between the Sheriff’s Office and the County Council regarding the roles and authority granted to the sheriff has highlighted the risk. Now, therefore, the time has come to address that risk.

A vote FOR Question No. 1 on the November ballot is the best way to mitigate the above risk. For Los Alamos County, having a sheriff’s office is an anachronism. A vote for Question 1 will consolidate into the Police Department the very few sheriff’s duties currently authorized under the Charter.

It is not reasonable for Los Alamos to have a sheriff’s office that fully duplicates the functions of the Police Department; another alternative to address the current risk. Such a solution also requires a Charter amendment and duplication is not only is impractical but costly. It would increase cost to taxpayers by an estimated ten times or more.

Please vote FOR Question No. 1.