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Tow fee back in Ogle County

Fund hasn't been transfered to county treasurer yet

Published: Monday, April 14, 2014 2:43 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 8:44 p.m. CDT
Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn

OREGON – Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn told some County Board members today that his department would resume collecting the controversial administrative tow fee.

In an email to seven County Board members and State's Attorney Mike Rock, Harn said he "will be implementing the fee as it was before" and apologized for any confusion.

In an internal memo April 1, Harn told his department that it would continue to "tow vehicles subsequent to arrest" but that it wouldn't "distribute the vehicle seizure paperwork, nor require owners to remit the $350 impound fee."

In Harn's email to board members today, he said he spoke with his attorney and knows what he can do, but wants the issue to go away.

"I would like to explain briefly what I was attempting to do," Harn said in the email. "In no way was I attempting to hurt the county or any one person. The feedback I was getting was just get away from the tow fund and let the next sheriff deal with it however they wish to deal with it!"

Harn didn't respond to a request for comment today.

A week after the memo, Ogle County Board Chairman Kim Gouker said it wasn't a decision made by the county and that he would contact Rock to determine if that was within the sheriff's authority.

Both Gouker and Rock said Monday, before Harn's email, that the County Board didn't have the power to force the Sheriff's Department to collect the fee.

On April 8, Gouker told Sauk Valley Media he didn't believe the Sheriff's Department had a choice on whether to collect the fee, but said that was just his initial interpretation of the county ordinance.

The county ordinance can't override the state statute for the sheriff as an elected official, Gouker said Monday, adding that the sheriff is an autonomous elected official who answers to the voters.

In February, the County Board made changes to the tow fund, limiting how the money could be spent and transferring control of the fund to County Treasurer John Coffman.

As of Monday morning, Coffman said the fund hadn't been transferred to his department's control.

The administrative tow fee was established by a county ordinance in 2011 and allows the Sheriff's Department to collect a $350 administrative fee to tow vehicles, such as those resulting from a DUI arrest or driving with a suspended license.

Between October 2011 and November 2013, $210,400 was deposited into the tow fund, which the ordinance allowed to be spent at the sheriff’s discretion.

In December, Sauk Valley Media reported that Harn had used money from the tow fund to pay for repairs to department vehicles, a tent at the Ogle County Fair, a $4,000 management fee for the department’s Facebook page, and flowers for Secretary’s Day, among other expenses.

Transferring control

Harn met with Gouker, Coffman and Ogle County Vice Chairman John Finfrock on April 8, the day of the county committee meetings.

During that meeting, Harn said the tow fund would be transferred to the treasurer that day, according to the County Security Committee meeting's tentative minutes and interviews with Gouker and Coffman.

While Gouker said he wanted the transfer to happen last Tuesday, when Harn said it would be done, he hadn't looked into what actions the County Board could take to force that transfer.

"There probably aren't many because elected officials are autonomous and they answer only to the voters," he said. "That's just something that I don't think we'll have to find out."

Gouker said he would talk with Harn today to see why there was a delay in making the transfer.

Rock said he hadn't looked into what legal options the County Board would have to make that transfer happen, adding that he thought Harn and the County Board would be able to work it out.

To transfer the fund to the treasurer's control, all Harn would likely have to do is close out the account with the bank, Coffman said, and have a cashier's check written for the remaining balance.

There's a resolution on Tuesday's County Board agenda that would establish the tow fund and restrict its revenue to the $350 administrative fee. It would also add reporting oversight from the treasurer.

In the March 18 Republican primary election, Harn lost a close three-way race to Brian VanVickle, a Rochelle police officer.

The Democratic Party has no candidate yet, and the general election is Nov. 4.

The new term starts Dec. 1.

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