Editorial: Sheriff’s action was legal, but not good public policy

Ever so often, all of us will make a judgment call that is off base, and we sometimes struggle to find the footing to set it right. That’s particularly so when no rules or laws are broken; or when no outright violation of norms were broken, yet still the call falls short of expectations.
Such is the case with Addison County Sheriff Don Keeler’s decision to use the general fund account from the sheriff’s office to pay for a political ad supporting his favored candidate for high bailiff. That candidate was one of four in the running.
The amount of funds we’re talking about is inconsequential — $154. The election also was won by a candidate Keeler did not support, so Keeler’s action did not affect the election. Nor, and this is the most important thing to remember, was Keeler’s action illegal. On the contrary, it was perfectly legal.
So what’s the story? It’s the principle of using funds from a publicly entrusted office for partisan politics.
As State Auditor Doug Hoffer, who audits the state’s sheriff’s offices, said in a story in today’s Addison Independent, “Generally, public funds should never be used for partisan political matters.”
And as Secretary of State James Condos stated in the same story, “I think it’s certainly going down a dangerous and slippery slope to allow state funds or government funds to advocate for specific candidates. It surprises me that (Keeler) would do that. Maybe he has a different take on it.”
Keeler does, of course, have a different take. He maintains the money is his to spend as he pleases.
“That money in that general fund is my money under my direction,” he told The Independent. “…It’s not county funds, it’s not federal funds, it’s Don Keeler’s funds. It’s for the work that I do with contracts.”
He’s right about that. The money Keeler is referring to is raised by the fees he charges for services and the contracts he fulfills for the 14 towns he serves. And it is separate from the relatively small amount of money he receives from the county’s budget. Indirectly, however, the town contracts are paid by local taxpayers and how that money is spent does make a difference to voters. Inappropriate use of those funds may not rise to the level of being illegal, but voters might certainly think it is wrong.
Sheriff Keeler could have said, “Hey, while it’s legal and my right to spend the money the way I see it, on second thought, I see your point and it would be better if I reimbursed the department and opted not to use sheriff department funds in that manner.” End of story. But Keeler is still struggling to find his footing on this action, and at the moment he’s fallen back on the legal aspects of his rights, rather than on what’s right.
We would like to emphasize this is not a huge deal. The amount of money is small; the action was legal. This is not a scandal. But it’s also not good policy and we would hope Keeler will publicly acknowledge that in the near future and, in so doing, set a better precedent — and perhaps someone in the Legislature might want to tweak our campaign finance laws to simply state that public funds should not be used in partisan political matters. Seems simple enough.
Angelo S. Lynn
UPDATE: On Friday, Sheriff Keeler told the Independent that he had reimbursed the Addison County Sheriff’s Department for the $154 in question.

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