OREGON – The Ogle County Sheriff’s Department returned a combined $1.3 million to the county by being under its budget the past 2 years. The department made the announcement with paid advertisements.
Those ads, and their relation to the March 18 primary election, were questioned by a county resident during an Ogle County Board meeting last week, according to a story published by Ogle County Life, a weekly newspaper.
The print ad was placed in Ogle County Life and the Rochelle News Leader, Sheriff Michael Harn said in an email. They cost $1,008 each.
Radio advertisements are also running on at least one radio station.
Harn didn’t respond to a separate email requesting information about the radio ads. On Tuesday, Sauk Valley Media submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for information about the radio ads.
“I took out the ads because the people in Ogle County are entitled to know that their tax dollars are being spent wisely, not recklessly as portrayed in your newspaper,” Harn said in an earlier email.
“Returning unspent budget money to the degree the Sheriff’s Office has the past 2 years is extraordinary – a record in fact. Taxpayers also needed to know actual spending has been slashed to near 2007 levels each of the past 3 years.”
The ads were paid for from the Sheriff’s Department’s administrative tow fund, which Sauk Valley Media reported in December is a fund not listed in the county’s budget. Harn uses that money at his discretion for Sheriff’s Department needs.
Sauk Valley Media also reported on the Sheriff’s Department’s credit card use, which included thousands of dollars in meals at local restaurants for “training,” personal purchases that were paid directly to the credit card company, and alterations to the credit card bills, which Harn defended as corrections.
The personal purchases and the lunchtime “training” were stopped before Sauk Valley Media’s reporting, Harn noted. The alterations to bills also have stopped, he said, because they were done to remove charges the county was not supposed to pay.
Other uses for the tow fund include $700 for a tent at the Ogle County Fair, $22,947 for a 2013 Dodge Ram 1500, and $4,000 for Heartland Studios to manage the department’s Facebook page.
Radio advertisements also were paid for from the tow fund in October and November 2013.
On Jan. 20, Sauk Valley Media reported on the unspent money that had been returned to the general fund.
“We operate in the state of Illinois, where the people are overtaxed by a state and federal government that are in debt from overspending,” Harn’s email said. “The Ogle County Board and the sheriff should be cheered not jeered by your newspaper and so-called watchdogs.
“Your endless series of negative articles are political and cross the line, when the real picture should be superior performance. Sauk Valley [Media] reported nothing positive until our ad ran, coincidence?”
David Morrison is a policy adviser for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a non-partisan public interest group that conducts research on the role of money in politics, among other issues.
“There’s nothing wrong with a public official explaining what they’re doing and what their office is about,” he said. “At the same time, a public officer shouldn’t use public dollars to supplement their campaign.”
In his email, Harn said the ad had nothing to do with the primary election, that he hasn’t started campaigning for re-election – less than 2 months from the primary election – and that he doesn’t think the ad could be viewed as part of his campaign.
“The ad is not political,” he said. “It’s Sheriff’s Office business that the people should know about. In fact, it’s the people’s money being returned, not the sheriff’s, which is how I look at it and why there is money to return in the first place.”
A test for the political nature of the ad, Morrison said, could be whether it touts the office or the person and whether the Sheriff’s Department has published similar ads in previous years – when there were no elections.
The ad begins with: “Sheriff Michael Harn announced the largest return of unspent budgeted money by the Sheriff’s Office in Ogle County history. A total of $766,000 was returned to the Ogle County general fund in December 2013. The returned funds broke the previous record also held by Sheriff Harn, when $572,000 of unspent budget was returned in 2012. Since Sheriff Harn’s reorganization of the Sheriff’s Office, he has returned a total of $1,392,000 to the county’s general fund.”
The ad includes a chart of the Sheriff’s Department’s unspent money returned to the general fund from 2003 to 2013. Harn took office in December 2010.
The ad also includes several quotes from Harn talking about how the money has been saved and a quote from Ogle County Board member Don Griffin, who, according to the ad, worked with Harn to decide to repair a county roof rather than replace it, which saved the county about $200,000 in fiscal year 2013.
“I appreciate the fact that we have a public official like Sheriff Harn, who doesn’t treat a budget as something to be spent entirely,” Griffin said in the ad. “Government needs to be responsible in spending hard-earned taxpayer money, not just in tough times, but all the time. Although big ticket savings get the most attention, the sheriff listens to each and every suggestion large or small from our team that may allow the county to save money, and he acts on many of them.”
In the ad, Harn says money has also been saved by reducing overtime and by deputies being used more effectively, which has reduced miles driven by 100,000 a year and saved on fuel and maintenance costs.
The ad includes the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department logo, information about the department’s Facebook page, and information about the department’s budget decreasing from $6.6 million in 2009 to $5.9 in 2013.
The Sheriff’s Department has previously run ads, Harn said, to alert people to the department’s Facebook page, wellness and safety checks for unattended property, consequences of holiday drinking and driving, and deer on roadways during mating season.
The more people who know what the sheriff is doing and what his duties are, the more effective the Sheriff’s Department can be with the community, Morrison said, adding that that type of dialogue often can start only from the elected official.
“It can be [that dialogue],” Morrison said. “It can also totally be about self-importance.”
Harn said he had not been campaigning, which he said “can wait.”
“Look at my campaign Facebook page and you will see the extent of my campaigning. There have been no ads,” Harn said in the email. “The people of Ogle County deserve a sheriff who works as their sheriff, not one who campaigns full time.
“I believe if we continue to work hard on the street by clearing burglaries at 72 percent here versus a national average of 12 percent [and] continue to be proactive as evidenced by an arrest rate up by 4 times since 2010, I’ll be re-elected. I will actively campaign when we get closer to the election.”
A post about the returned money appeared on the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page at 4:19 p.m. Jan. 14.
A post about the returned money, which was the first paragraph of the ad, appeared on Harn’s re-election Facebook page 22 minutes later.
Since Jan. 1, two other posts have showed up on the campaign’s Facebook page. The first, on Jan. 13, said: “”Everyone has been asking when the Harn signs are going up. Starting Wednesday ‘Game On.’ If you would like a sign please message me with the location you want the sign. Thanks.”
The other post, from Jan. 20, was a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.