Sheriff Sumner set to sue supervisors

Photo Courtesy Greenlee County: Greenlee County Sheriff Tim Sumner is set to sue the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors over funding issues.

Showdown in Duncan over who controls the county’s finances

By Jon Johnson

DUNCAN – The O.K. Corral it’s not, but the stakes are still high in this day and age as Greenlee County Sheriff Tim Sumner’s impasse over financial obligations with the Greenlee County Administrator and Board of Supervisors has come to a head and appears to be going forward with litigation. And in the end, no matter who wins, the ultimate loser is the Greenlee County taxpayer who will be fronting the cost for out-of-town attorneys for both sides.

The board unanimously approved moving forward with an Engagement Agreement with Moyes Sellers & Hendricks Ltd. for legal services for the Greenlee County Sheriff’s Office. Funds from the county’s general fund will pay for the attorney. When the board hires its own attorney, funds from the general fund will also pay for that. The agenda item was requested by Greenlee County Assistant County Attorney Jeremy Ford after the attorney’s office was requested to serve counsel for the sheriff.  

At the Greenlee County Supervisors’ Tuesday morning meeting, Sheriff Sumner informed the group that he intends to sue them for funds he requested but has not been awarded.

Greenlee County Administrator Derek Rapier advised the board that he sees litigation as the only likely answer. 

“It is untenable to continue to have these little skirmishes without resolution,” Rapier said.  

Sumner said that the board was usurping his authority by not paying for the funds he requested after previously being informed the services would not be covered.

“Umm, you know we’ve been talking about this for some time,” Sumner told the board via Zoom. “As Mr. Campbell stated, you know, when is it going to come to a head it’s going to be happen to come to a head at some point. It’s gotten to the point that, uhh, you’ve wanted litigation on this – your administrator asked me several times what’s going to happen if, uhh, the board just continues to, uhh, refuse to pay anything, uhh, uhh, so I guess the answer is here that and as you know there is, uhh, the pending litigation this right here is for getting the attorney that is necessary to move forward, uhh, with that litigation process . . . so, uhh, that’s all that I have to say about this one. Thank you for your time, and unfortunately, uhh, we have to go this route . . .”   

Greenlee County Assistant County Attorney Jeremy Ford informed the board that since one county entity wants to sue another county entity, the Greenlee County Attorney’s Office is in conflict on the case and has to hire out-of-town counsel to represent both sides as it cannot represent one side against the other. Ford said they worked off of a list of attorneys provided by the Pinal County Attorney’s Office who perform legal services to counties.   

Basically, what is happening in Greenlee County is Sheriff Sumner wants his Sheriff’s Office to be its own separate entity in which he rules over every aspect without any checks or balances. And he wants Greenlee County taxpayers who pay for his salary and the entire office to pay for whatever he deems necessary without any oversight other than the sheriff himself. County Administrator Derek Rapier advised that Sumner has contended his office should have its own IT personnel and department, fleet management of vehicles, and that there is “a number of other areas where the sheriff has decided that the board has trodded on his authority or his ground. So, with these contentions (and) disputes it is time, I suppose, for him to instigate litigation that it sounds like he wants to do . . . These types of issues have been propping up over and over and over again for months now, and so I suppose this is the beginning of a coming to an end.”   

To support his claim, Sheriff Sumner cites Arizona Revised Statute 11-444 Expenses of 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.

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.

So, instead of using the Greenlee County Fleet Department to service the police vehicles like all the taxpayer-paid county vehicles, Sumner has taken it upon himself to take the police vehicles to a private Safford auto service center and then billed the county for the service. After initially paying the bills, the board of supervisors advised it would not honor any future expenditures of vehicle services anywhere other than its own Greenlee County Fleet Department. The board has also refused to acquiesce to Sumner’s IT demands and more.

Rapier told the Gila Herald that Greenlee County will not simply cave to Sumner’s orders for funding, and, unfortunately, it appears that the matter will have to be litigated. 

“There are checks and balances and audits and responsibilities given to different parts of county government,” Rapier said. “So, it shows up in his desire to have his own IT department, in his desire to have his own fleet department and servicing garage and so forth.” 

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. 

Sumner has also declined to allow the installation of GPS tracking systems in the police vehicles as is in every other Greenlee County vehicle paid for by the taxpayers. Sheriff Sumner has had an issue with the GPS units ever since public records of him speeding without cause were reported by the Gila Herald. Sheriff Sumner also had previous accusations of unnecessary speeding and harassment of a female deputy.