OREGON – A close vote of the Ogle County Board this week diminished the sheriff's control over how one of the funds in his budget is spent.
A motion to tighten controls on the "administrative tow fund" was amended to take out the wording that allows the sheriff to decide how the money is spent.
The board approved the amendment by a 12-11 vote before approving the original motion by an overwhelming 22-1.
Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn has come under fire in recent weeks over expenditures in the tow fund, which included purchasing a new vehicle, flowers for Secretaries Day, a tent at the county fair, and $4,000 for management of the department's Facebook page.
Several stories published in Sauk Valley Media and Ogle County Newspapers have scrutinized the sheriff's expenditures in the tow fund and on a credit card.
Revenues for the tow fund are supposed to come from the administrative fees charged to offenders when their vehicles must be towed. The tow fee is $350 per incident.
The county's executive committee recommended tightening up the ordinance which governs the fund.
Originally the ordinance read, "Any funds collected under this division as an administrative fee shall be used at the discretion of the sheriff, and may be used for law enforcement related activities including the purchase or maintenance of police vehicles, equipment, or training."
The committee recommended changes to make the ordinance read, "Any funds collected under this division as an administrative fee shall be deposited to the sheriff's Tow Fund, as established by the Ogle County Board, and used at the discretion of the sheriff, and shall be used for law enforcement related activities limited to the purchase, repair, or maintenance of police vehicles, vehicle equipment, or fuel. The purchase of police vehicles, while at the discretion of the sheriff, shall be done only with the advice and consent of the county board committee to which the sheriff's General Fund budget is reviewed on a regular, monthly basis. Monthly reports of expenditures from the Tow Fund will be made to the same committee at its regular monthly meetings."
However, board member Bruce McKinney of Rochelle was not quite satisfied. He made a motion for an amendment removing the words "and used at the discretion of the sheriff."
"It needs to be back under the control of the county board and county treasurer," he said.
After the amendment passed by a narrow margin, the board threw its support behind the ordinance change.
Only Dorothy Bowers, Byron of voted no. Board member Bill Welty of Chana did not attend the meeting.
Board member Pat Saunders of Polo asked whether the tow fund will now go through the treasurer's office and be audited as a result of the ordinance change.
Board chairman Kim Gouker of Byron assured her that it would.
Earlier in the meeting, Polo resident Brian Duncan spoke up in defense of Harn and thanked him for participating in the Ogle County Fair last summer.
"It was great to see Mike and his deputies there interacting with the kids," Duncan said.
He called the recent criticism of Harn's expenditures "an election year smearing of an elected official."
Harn is running for the Republican nomination in the March 18 primary election. His opponents are Joe Drought and Brian VanVickle, both of Rochelle.
"Whether you intended to or not, you've damaged an elected official," Duncan told the board.
During his chairman's comments, Gouker responded to Duncan.
"I'm not sure what we have done," he said.
Gouker said he recently received a letter from a citizen asking what the board is hiding.
"I want the public to know we're not hiding anything," he said. "I want to go on the record that we have been openly compliant with the public."
He said the county's records are being audited as usual, and numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for information from the Sheriff's Department have been fulfilled.
Board member Dick Petrizzo of Davis Junction, who asked for a forensic audit of the Sheriff's Department in January, said his request for a vote on the matter at this month's board meeting was rejected by the executive committee on Feb. 11.
"I'm willing to wait and let things die downs long as we get some answers," he said.
Petrizzo said concern over the estimated $10,000 cost of a forensic audit could be eliminated by an "outside federal agency," which would investigate at no cost.
"Dixon is right down the road," Petrizzo said, referring to Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell, who was convicted last year of illegally taking $53 million from the city over 20 years.
Gouker protested the comparison. He said he has talked to the county's auditor and asked him to scrutinize the tow fund and the sheriff's credit card expenditures.
"He did and found nothing wrong," Gouker said. "We're not going to go on a witch hunt just to see if we can find something."
Saunders pointed out that several county funds, besides the tow fund, don't go through the treasurer.
She said the county has been cited by the auditors for that for several years.
All funds, Saunders said, should be handled by the treasurer, not individual department heads.
"We'll probably be cited again this year," she said. "Let's make this year the last year."