Sheriff defends his deputy
Ely: "Completely different" circumstances influenced discipline in drag racing incident
Tuesday, September 25, 2012 7:20 AM
Sheriff Doug Ely appeared before the Houston County Board on Sept. 18, but refused to discuss specifics surrounding a July 12 incident that involved one of his deputies.
On that date, a drag race occurred between a brand-new city of Caledonia Crown Victoria and a brand-new Houston County Dodge Charger. The driver of the Dodge is rumored to have won, in more ways than one.
Caledonia police officer Chad Hauser was given a 28-day suspension following the impromptu squad car drag race.
The unidentified sheriff's deputy has not been given any time off following the incident, which occurred on the runway of the Houston County Airport near Caledonia.
Citing data practice rules, Ely said he could not talk about "internal affairs." The deputy has since received a "coaching session" according to Chief Deputy Scott Yeiter. No further discipline has yet been meted out.
"The situation that the county had and what the city had are completely different," Ely said.
"When you look at the totality of the circumstances, ours was minute compared to the city's. I'm not trying to minimize what happened, but it was dealt with."
Chairman Jack Miller said the county is struggling with who has the authority to discipline members of the department. Even though the sheriff oversees deputies, the board is responsible to respond to misuse of county equipment such as squad cars and DVD copying machines, he noted.
"There's a line that we're trying to get clarified here as far as who has the call on what," Miller said, stressing that none of his recent comments on the matter were personal attacks.
"As far as the punishment, if my son drag races out at the airport and he gets caught, it would be a big ticket," Commissioner Tom Bjerke said.
"It sounds like there's going to be a letter put in this gentleman's file when the (employee) evaluation comes; but our issue is that if there is some punishment, we as a board and the county's Human Resource Department should be able to decide how much is done. We don't really know if this punishment fits the crime.
"We just want you and us to agree on what the punishment is," Bjerke stated.
"It's a bad influence on our youth. We just want to make sure that we have input on it. I think we're feeling that we don't have any say in that, and that's a gray area that we've got to have input on."
Miller concurred, and asked why the deputy's name has not been released.
"Their contract (department employees) states directly who punishes them and that's the sheriff," Ely said. "If he would have received anything other than what he got, it would have been made public."
Miller noted that employees racing company vehicles in private sector jobs would probably have been fired.
Ely said that the county attorney and Human Resources manager would need to weigh in on the subject before any changes on who disciplines Sheriff's Department employees occurs.
"I don't think people realize the severity of what happened," Commissioner Justin Zmyewski said. "The person in question did break one of the FAA's regulations. It's a certified runway incursion. As far as the regulations, there's no difference between the airport in Caledonia and Minneapolis International Airport. If someone had to break off on a final approach, it could have been disastrous."
Punishment from the FAA for repeated incursions could include the loss of $150,000 per year in funding, he noted.
Zmyewski added that if an accident had occurred with one or both squad cars, the county's insurance carrier said it would not have been covered.
"We think of this as a local incident, but I find it embarrassing that it made Fox News in Philadelphia. I think it's a bigger issue than what some see it as."
"We can certainly work (together)," Ely told the board. "I didn't say that we couldn't work something out. Unfortunately, this situation is over."
Ely later added that he was misquoted in a local media outlet, and never said he would not appear before the board to discuss the incident.
Bjerke asked Ely to bring personnel director Tess Kruger into the process, stating, "That would be a huge sign that you're willing to work with us. Right now, we've been left out of the process. We don't want to be in the dark."
Resident Yvonne Krogstad asked, "If I were the one caught drag racing at the airport, what would my punishment have been?"
"I can't tell you, I don't know," Ely replied.
"I have asked Tess (Kruger) to spend whatever time is necessary this week to get a clarification of where that line (of responsibility) is," Miller said.
"I just have to be honest with you, I'm not happy with the end of this, if we're going to call it the end."
Miller added that he is also not satisfied with the result of 2010 probes into DVD copying using county equipment on county time.
Two supervisors were reprimanded in that incident, but more persons were undoubtedly involved, he said.
"We can just shrug and say that was taken care of. People deserve the right to know what was taken care of and how it was taken care of."
Kruger reported that two LELS (Law Enforcement Labor Services) labor units represent Sheriff's Department employees. Even though the county board could issue a sanction against an employee for violation of county policy, under the current labor agreements the right to accept or reject the grievance would rest with the sheriff.
"You don't have the authority to hear the grievance, so the sheriff does have the ultimate say on that," she stated.
Zmyewski said that the issue could be brought to the bargaining table in future discussions with employee unions.