Greenlee Sheriff Sumner wants lawsuit against county moved to Apache, Greenlee BOS move to dismiss

Greenlee County Sheriff Tim Sumner wants his complaint against the Greenlee County BOS heard in Apache County, while the BOS moves for dismissal.

By Jon Johnson

CLIFTON – If whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting (Mark Twain?), then what is Greenlee County Sheriff Tim Sumner squabbling over with the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors?

There’s likely a long and complicated set of reasoning, but basically, Sheriff Sumner apparently believes he can run his department autonomously from oversight by the Board of Supervisors and that the board should cave to whatever financial demands he makes regarding his office. The Greenlee County Board of Supervisors disagrees and now the matter will appear to be settled by a conflict Maricopa County Superior Court Judge. But where will it be settled? 

Previously, Sheriff Sumner began taking patrol vehicles to Safford for servicing instead of having Greenlee County’s Fleet department service them as normal. This occurred after public records of Sheriff Sumner’s speeding captured on his patrol GPS system were published. In turn, Sumner desired to take the GPS systems out of the patrol vehicles, and this is one reason, county officials surmise, that he elected to take the vehicles elsewhere to be serviced. 

When Sumner’s financial demands (including those for his own IT department) were rejected by the BOS, Sumner threatened to sue and said he had the authority to determine how much his department needed financially. 

At that time, County Administrator Derek Rapier said the county wouldn’t cave to Sumner’s demands. 

“There are checks and balances and audits and responsibilities given to different parts of county government,” Rapier said. 

In a potential lawsuit involving the elected sheriff and the elected members of the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors, both parties have retained outside legal counsel to administer the case. 

Sheriff Sumner is represented by the law firm of Moyes, Sellers & Hendricks, with attorneys Joshua T. Greer and Nicholas J. Walter working the case, and the BOS is represented by Jones, Skelton & Hochuli P.L.C., with attorneys Georgia A. Staton and Justin M. Ackerman working the case. Funds from the county’s general fund are paying for both sets of attorneys, who both hail from Phoenix. 

In Sumner’s Complaint for Declaratory Judgment, he recites ARS 11-444 Expenses of the sheriff as county charge; expense fund. The statute states,

A. The sheriff shall be allowed actual and necessary expenses incurred by the sheriff in pursuit of criminals, for transacting all civil or criminal business, and for service of all process and notices, and such expenses shall be a county charge, except that the allowable expenses of service of process in civil actions shall be as provided in section 11-445.

B. The board shall, at the first regular meeting in each month, set apart from the expense fund of the county a sum sufficient to pay the estimated traveling and other expenses of the sheriff during the month, which shall be not less than the amount paid for the expenses for the preceding month. The sum so set apart shall thereupon be paid over to the sheriff for the payment of such expenses.

C. At the end of each month the sheriff shall render a full and true account of such expenses, and any balance remaining unexpended shall be paid by the sheriff into the county treasury. If the sum so paid over is insufficient to pay the expenses incurred during the month, the excess shall be allowed and paid as other claims against the county.

Photo Courtesy Greenlee County: Greenlee County Sheriff Tim Sumner is in the process of suing the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors for failing to pay the invoices he made without prior approval.

However, the statute was initiated during the early formation of the state, and counties are regulated with modern-day financing that is more sophisticated. Sumner mistakenly believes that the statute allows him to perform any spending he desires without any oversight or fiscal checks or balances.

In his filing, Sumner “demands judgment in his favor against the Board” and also reports that he filed a Motion for a Change of Venue to Apache County. The Greenlee BOS indicated in its response that Greenlee County was the proper place for adjudication and that Apache County is not “the most convenient to the parties” and responded that if the venue is to be changed it be changed to Graham County. 

The Greenlee BOS’ response cites previous court rulings in its defense that the Board’s decision regarding what county expenses are necessary or unnecessary is a legislative decision not subject to court interference. (See Homebuilders Ass’n Cent. Arizona v. City of Scottsdale, 187 Arizona 479, 481 (1997). And that it is also a political question not subject to court interference. (See Puente v. Arizona State Legislature, 521 P.3d 1007, 1012 (2022).

The BOS stated they fully answered Sumner’s complaint and requested the matter be dismissed. What happens next will be at the discretion of the conflict judge.  

Both Sumner and the BOS have requested attorneys’ fees from the other side while both sets of attorneys are being paid from the county’s general fund, i.e. the taxpayer. 

Sumner was re-elected in a four-way race in 2020 with just 36 percent of the overall vote. Sumner (1,333 votes) narrowly defeated Greenlee County Attorney Office Investigator Eric Ellison (1,203 votes) by 130 votes, while former Sheriff Larry Avila (827 votes) ad Jaime Aguilar (309 votes) split the vote enough to allow Sumner to remain in his position.