Sheriff’s Office abandons restrictive election policy
A policy that would have required any deputy wishing to run for sheriff to resign has been nixed after Eagle County attorneys warned Sheriff Joe Hoy the policy could be unconstitutional.”They do believe there could be some First Amendment issues,” Hoy said Thursday. “I’m going to rescind the policy.”Hoy scrapped the policy the day after he was contacted by the Vail Daily this week to discuss the newly established rule. Hoy said he originally adopted the policy to prevent friction within the Sheriff’s Office. If a deputy runs for office against an incumbent sheriff, it would be a signal that the deputy doesn’t support the current sheriff, he said. But after speaking with county attorneys, he decided to retract the rule. County attorneys did not return calls for comment. “The intent was never to deprive anyone of their ability to participate in the political process,” he said. “The idea was to maintain some order in this office.”Hoy, who was a deputy when he challenged fellow deputy Bill Kaufman for the sheriff’s seat in 2002, said the policy really only would apply when a deputy is running against an incumbent. Hoy that year replaced longtime Sheriff A.J. Johnson, who was term-limited from running again.”If my predecessor had been able to run again, I would have chosen not to run,” he said. Kaufman, who was the Democratic candidate running against Republican Hoy, still works for the Sheriff’s Office. Shortly after Hoy was elected, Kaufman was promoted to director of the Eagle County Detention Center. There are two potential problems with the policy, said local attorney Rohn Robbins. First, there is no law that prevents someone from running for office because of their employment. Secondly, Hoy does not have the legal authority to create such a policy, Robbins said. While it is true that all deputies are “at-will” employees and can be fired for reasons as seemingly minor as a personality conflict, they cannot be fired for exercising their freedom of speech.Running for elected office is “akin to freedom of expression, akin to freedom of assembly,” Robbins said. Despite questions about the constitutionality of the policy, it is not unique. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office had a similar code in place from 1987 to 2004, when it was rescinded just before former Sheriff Joe Morales left office. Gov. Bill Owens appointed Morales, who was a Republican in his third term as sheriff, head of the state’s Department of Public Safety.Sheriff John Minor, who was appointed to replace Morales, said the policy was retracted so that other deputies could challenge him in this year’s election.”(There were) no bones about it,” Minor said. Morales had endorsed former Capt. Mike Phibbs to fill his shoes. Minor’s appointment sparked some division in the department, and Minor fired Phibbs just days after he took office for “personnel reasons.” The other candidate for appointment, Capt. Derek Woodman, was soon promoted to undersheriff. Minor said he hasn’t given the policy much thought and he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with an employed deputy running for sheriff. “I told (Woodman) that I was fine with him running against me,” Minor said. “Just keep the politics out of the office. There needs to be no divisiveness. What happens is that people within the office will form camps and then we lose our focus when our focus really should be serving the community.”Woodman did not run for the office, but Phibbs challenged Minor in the August Republican primary. Minor came out on top, and as the only candidate in the race he now appears certain to keep his position.The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t require deputies to resign if they wish to run for sheriff, but Sheriff Lou Vallario said he understands the reason for such a policy.”You kind of run into command structure issues, loyalty issues, obedience issues, and since we are kind of quasi-military, I think there is a need for some consistency, rather than disagreement, within in the ranks,” Vallario said. Robbins questioned if disagreement – within the Sheriff’s Office or otherwise – is such a bad thing in a political democracy.”As the public, we want the dissension; we want those different voices,” he said. “It’s supposed to be utter chaos, and out of that comes enlightenment.”Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or firstname.lastname@example.org.