Twice the Ledger-Enquirer has published extensive interviews with litigants in on-going legal disputes against the city, as well as its legislative and administrative officials, and twice those publications have included inaccuracies and misrepresentations as shown by documents known to, accessible by, or previously reported on by the Ledger.
Following the publication of such an interview with the Municipal Court Marshal, the Ledger published a correction of several previously printed untruths. Nevertheless, it again chose to publish a similar interview of matters contested and contravened in an ongoing legal proceeding in which the city and defendants have been highly successful in having numerous claims dismissed. This editorial response refutes the inaccuracies and misrepresentations of the most recent Ledger interview of the Sheriff. It also seeks to provide a clear picture for the citizens who have been forced to foot the cost of the litigation and, therefore, should be provided verifiable information regarding it.
The Sheriff has chosen to sue the Columbus Consolidated Government (CCG) over budgetary matters on the basis of an incorrect assumption. He has taken the basic principle of law that an elected official may spend his budget monies, once appropriated, as he sees fit if not otherwise prohibited by law, and stood it on its head to assert that he can spend what he wishes and CCG is required to appropriate funds to cover it.
This incorrect understanding of the law has resulted in the Sheriff overspending his $27 million budget by $11.5 million in 6 years, nearly crippling the city, causing us to hover barely above the required 60-day reserve mark and threatening layoffs of 100 or more employees. This $11.5 million overrun equates to 22 days of reserve. If not for these overruns, the CCG reserve day fund would stand at 82 days.
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One myth or misrepresentation, unchallenged by the Ledger in its recent interview, is that these overruns are somehow related exclusively to the rising cost of inmate healthcare. That is not accurate. Indeed, the million-dollar-plus annual overruns have been largely attributable to inflated payroll supplements paid to certain Sheriff’s Office personnel, resulting in some employees making 30 to 120 percent of their pay in “overtime” not required by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act to be paid at all. Rather, these are simply supplements paid through taxpayer funds due to the voluntary custom and management schedule of the Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office often argues that even with these overruns, it provides required inmate healthcare and runs its jail cheaper per prisoner than all others in the state. The Sheriff omits, however, that a significant million-dollar-plus portion of the inmate healthcare tab is picked up by CCG and the taxpayers through our contract with the Medical Center, which is not run through his budget but is supplemental to it.
The Sheriff’s Office omits that it often transfers monies out of the additional appropriations provided to it for inmate healthcare to pay for discretionary items such as additional uniforms, conference registrations and other operational expenses. The Sheriff’s Office omits that it often expends its first budgetary monies on items outside it mission, allowing inmate medical bills to go unsubmitted and unpaid for months after the end of the fiscal year and many months after they were accrued, causing vendors to threaten collections against the city. Another myth surrounding the present budget dispute is that the city is seeking to rein in these serious budget overruns by cutting funds necessary to run the jail. Untrue. The monies appropriated for the Muscogee County Jail have not been asked to be reduced except as urged by the Sheriff himself in support of the much-anticipated Rapid Resolution effort to reduce expensive jail time for first offenders and nonviolent offenders.
The only funds sought to be reduced through the budget process are related to duplicative law enforcement services. (And, no, the Sheriff’s Office is not the Chief Law Enforcement agency of the county, as OCGA § 36-8-5 shows that where there is a countywide police department so funded, the Police Department, not the Sheriff’s Office, is the Chief Law Enforcement agency, and while the Sheriff is required to have “some” budget for law enforcement, those law enforcement resources are not to be duplicative of others provided in the county.)
But now to the more purposeful inaccuracies published in the Sunday interview.
The Sheriff said he wishes the legal matters had been mediated, not litigated, though he initiated the litigation. As the Ledger is aware, CCG urged the lawyers for the Sheriff’s Office in writing to mediate these claims before they were filed. The Sheriff’s lawyers refused. It was obvious from the start that the Sheriff and his legal counsel were unaware of, or confused by, his budget and the actual budget process used by the city. This confusion led to the Sheriff initially suing the city and taxpayers for over $800,000 less than he had actually been appropriated.
He also initially demanded that the city reinstate his prior year’s budget, which was some $400,000 less than that of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget he filed suit over.
These examples and many more misunderstandings by the Sheriff and his counsel resulted in the Sheriff having to file five sets of repeatedly amended pleadings, adding and dismissing claims as their “trial by error” method of litigation cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What the Sheriff contends was his after-the-fact request for mediation actually tipped the hand of what CCG and the defendants had believed all along – that these cases had been filed as nothing more than bargaining chips to extract more budgetary money on the threat that the money would be spent one way or the other through litigation, so we might as well give it to the litigants. This tactic is known as abuse of process, where litigants have another purpose for lodging litigation other than resolving a true legal dispute of the issues.
We cannot run a city and a budget in the face of threats that elected officials will each year institute costly litigation if they do not get what they want. The matters must now, unfortunately, be litigated to conclusion to remove these disturbing threats once and for all.
The Ledger interview says the Sheriff only wants to sit down with the Mayor and discuss these issues to find a way forward, together. That's an odd assertion, as the Sheriff and I have a standing meeting every month which appears on both our CCG electronic calendars until canceled. The Sheriff attended these monthly meetings regularly for the first three years or so and then started to cancel them, and then stopped showing up, though the standing meetings remain to this day. (The Sheriff also stopped coming to the quarterly Public Safety meeting over a year ago.)
Additionally, and inaccurately, the interview says the Sheriff wished only that he had an opportunity to meet with the Mayor to discuss the budget process. Interestingly, the Sheriff was invited in writing to participate in the budget process directly with the Mayor, City Manager and Finance Director to go over his budget and to aid us in the assessment of duplicative law enforcement resources, but he declined. And the Sheriff was invited in writing to attend the Mayor’s budgetary policy advisory group consisting of the Budget Chair, the Mayor Pro Tem, Councilor Mike Baker (who is CPA), the Finance Director and the City Manager. The Sheriff was a no-show.
The litigation by the Sheriff curiously alleges that he is his own unit of local government. A unit of local government is legally defined as a county, municipality or consolidated government. Nevertheless, the Sheriff is using taxpayer monies to have the court declare him as such so he can spend money unchecked by the executive policy making process and legislative budgetary function of our local government. He ignores completely and refuses to respond to legal mandates under section 7-401 of our Charter that it is the Mayor who “shall” propose line item expenditures for all elected offices; and that under section 7-402 it is the Council, which after deliberation shall set those expenditures.
If the elected official then chooses to spend his appropriated monies differently than the line items provided, he may do so if not otherwise prohibited or limited. However, the Mayor through the budget proposal process and the Council through the budget setting process have the absolute right and duty to review expenditures made outside of mission or which are duplicative in nature when setting the next year’s budget, and we will continue to do so.
It is simply not true that the budget process of the last few years is new or distinguished from the past. Rarely, if ever, has the Sheriff’s Office received in budget what it has requested. A summary of those requests, Mayors’ proposals (even through the Wetherington administration) and Council’s final allotments presented at a recent Council meeting are evidence of that fact.
The Ledger does a disservice to its readers to print one-sided, unvetted and unchallenged interviews of litigants in heatedly disputed litigation, particularly when contrary facts are in its possession or readily available.
Teresa Tomlinson, mayor of Columbus; (706) 653-4712; firstname.lastname@example.org.