Mesa County sheriff: executive or ideologue?
The duties of county sheriffs in Colorado are spelled out in state statutes. These include to “keep and preserve the peace,” to apprehend people suspected of committing felonies and other crimes, to be custodians of county jails, to transport prisoners, to serve writs and warrants and to act as fire marshal for the county.
And, as with every other elected official in Colorado, a sheriff takes an oath to uphold both the U.S. and state constitutions.
If John Pennington wants to be elected sheriff of Mesa County, he needs to tell voters of this county how he plans to go about fulfilling the statutory duties listed above and how he will do so within the constraints of a perpetually tight budget.
Pennington used his platform at the Republican Mesa County Assembly Saturday to describe to delegates what he sees as a more important responsibility — attacking federal agencies that he claims are causing Americans to lose “our lands and our freedom.”
Questioning how federal agencies act is, of course, a prerogative of all Americans, and it has been going on since the earliest days of our republic (see the Whiskey Rebellion, circa 1791). But effective challenges to federal actions almost always come from one of two processes: the political system and elections that result in new presidents or members of Congress who change federal laws, or the judicial system through which federal laws or regulations may be overturned.
Pennington said if he’s elected he would serve as a “constitutional sheriff,” and he has aligned himself with Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who advocates forming an army of county sheriffs to fight federal encroachment. Mack has made the dubious assertion that the federal Environmental Protection Agency “destroys more jobs and more property rights than all of the criminal organizations put together.”
Local elected officials certainly have the right to express themselves about federal laws and government agencies. They can also challenge laws or actions they believe are unconstitutional, so long as they do it legally. Fifty-five county sheriffs from around Colorado are doing that right now with a trial that began Monday in federal court in Denver, arguing that several gun-control laws passed by the state Legislature last year are unconstitutional.
The problem with local elected officials who believe they can decide for themselves which laws to enforce or which federal agencies to ignore is that they almost always lose. This was true of Southern sheriffs who refused to accept racial equality and equal protection laws in the 1960s, sagebrush rebels in the West in the 1980s and critics of federal immigration laws in Arizona recently. Even the whiskey rebels failed to get the tax they hated overturned — until, that is, they helped elect a new president and Congress more amenable to their ideas.
Meanwhile, Mesa County voters have a right to know how Pennington and his opponent, state Sen. Steve King, would deal with jail overcrowding, the scourge of meth addiction or an uptick in violent crime, and do so without busting their budgets.