Legislators look lousy in feud with sheriff

Franklin County legislators have made themselves look pretty bad in an ongoing feud with Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill. Legislator Paul Maroun of Tupper Lake especially should apologize for starting a shouting match at a county board meeting last week.

What sparked the explosion was that a sheriff’s deputy charged a longtime legislator, Guy “Tim” Smith of Fort Covington, with driving while ability impaired back in August. Deputy Luke Cromp pulled Mr. Smith over north of Malone, reportedly because he had seen him driving erratically. Mr. Smith’s blood alcohol content was recorded at 0.055 percent, which is not terribly high – the kind of thing one might have after drinking a couple of beers – but still leads to impaired driving and is therefore illegal. (A BAC of 0.08 or higher prompts the more severe driving-while-intoxicated charge.) Mr. Smith pleaded not guilty and hopes to prove his case in court.

In response, legislators challenged the sheriff at last week’s board meeting, acting as if this arrest was part of the feud. With Mr. Smith out of the room, Mr. Maroun demanded that Mr. Mulverhill tell him “what that deputy was doing out there.”

To a certain degree, that was a good question. We, like many legislators, don’t think precious county tax dollars are well spent on sheriff’s road patrols, considering all the state troopers, village police and other peace officers out there. We’re glad Franklin County reins this in. A sheriff’s office up here needs to do little more than run the county jail.

It was foolish, however, for Mr. Maroun to ask this in such a blustery manner, because the sheriff had a solid answer. Deputy Cromp had been checking in on registered sex offenders, one of the jobs deputies do, along with issuing subpoenas and transporting inmates. If they didn’t come to Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake to take inmates to and from the jail in Malone, village police would have to, taking them off the street and adding to their overtime.

If a deputy out on a job like that sees someone apparently breaking the law or acting dangerously, he or she has a duty to intervene, as Deputy Cromp did.

Mr. Maroun, in addition to being off base, was partly sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. While the legislators manage budgets, the sheriff is separately elected by the people to manage law enforcement.

Mr. Maroun, however, refused to leave the limb he had walked out onto and began a clumsy, loud, unsuccessful attempt to cow the sheriff. What ensued was a regrettable shouting match between the two men.

Legislator Tim Burpoe of Saranac Lake then challenged Mr. Mulverhill on whether jail staff badmouth legislators at morning roll calls. (They do, although Mr. Mulverhill said he hasn’t been there to hear it.) Legislators had better get used to having their policy decisions criticized sometimes. The board has given the sheriff’s office reason to gripe.

The toxic relationship is rooted in the board’s budget cuts and the sheriff’s sticking up for his staff. This kind of thing is understandable in these days of heightened municipal budget tension, especially at the county level where unfunded state mandates are forcing painful chopping, but there’s no need for disrespect.

Both sides’ tactics have been provocative, but the sheriff was right in 2011 to call in the state Commission of Corrections and stop the board from cutting jail staffing below the state-mandated level. Legislators were furious.

That same year, the board eliminated a 3.5 percent raise for unionized sheriff’s office staff from their budget. According to Undersheriff Patrick White, staff were angered when legislators “waited until the raise was to go into effect to let these people know that it was not going to come.”

Legislators threatened last week to tighten the sheriff’s budget further to replace deputies with cheaper corrections officers, trimming non-jail duties. Such a budget decision might be OK if it wasn’t obviously driven by a selfish motive – to get back at those who embarrass legislators.