Commissioners chastise sheriff over vehicle purchases

Posted 11/5/09

Steward said three vehicles had been taken out of the fleet this spring due to various problems; a fourth was out for repairs. The sheriff said that created a “nightmare” in rotating vehicles and raised concerns of officer …

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Commissioners chastise sheriff over vehicle purchases


Sheriff says decision saved moneyPark County commissioners had strong words for Park County Sheriff Scott Steward at their Tuesday meeting, criticizing Steward's decision to purchase six SUVs without soliciting local bids.Steward said the purchase saved taxpayer dollars and was an issue of public safety.Commissioners, however, said they should have been consulted about the purchase, and that the move had harmed local auto dealers.

Steward said three vehicles had been taken out of the fleet this spring due to various problems; a fourth was out for repairs. The sheriff said that created a “nightmare” in rotating vehicles and raised concerns of officer safety.

Steward said he spoke with Crook County Sheriff Steve Stahla and learned that a broker recently sold some SUVs to Crook County for around $23,000 each.

Steward said that appeared to be a deal, given that the sheriff's department paid around $27,000 per SUV in 2006 after bidding the vehicles locally. He also said he believed the vehicles would arrive more quickly.

Ultimately, Steward made a deal with broker Bob Vito, acquiring six Dodge Durangos for $23,098 each from Warnock Motors in East Hanover, N.J.

Steward said the vehicles had been selling quickly from Warnock Motors.

“Seeing how fast they were going, that's why I acted like I did,” he said.

The broker, Vito, took the sheriff's department's six old vehicles for a trade-in credit of $12,400.

Based on his experience in selling vehicles over the past seven years, Steward said he believed the vehicles would fetch no more than around $2,000 each.

However, Commissioner Jill Shockley Siggins — who had formerly worked in auto sales at Fremont Motors — said Steward had received too little in return. She said the trade-in value of just one of the vehicles, a 2005 Chevy Tahoe, was $11,800, according to figures from the National Automobile Dealers Association.

“There's no way anybody was going to give us $11,000 for any of those vehicles,” Steward countered, adding, “Where would we get that money?”

Steward said his decision to purchase the vehicles was aimed at saving taxpayers money.

“My intent was to do that, and I think I've done that,” he said.

While he said there were things he should have done differently — such as contacting the commissioners and local dealers beforehand — “I made that decision on my own, and I'm sticking to that decision,” Steward said.

Siggins called the decision “irresponsible,” saying that Steward should have at least given local dealers a chance to match or beat the price before buying out of state.

“When you're spending our tax dollars in New Jersey, that's a real affront to the people of Park County,” Siggins said, adding later, “The citizens have not been served well.”

Commissioner Dave Burke, who worked at Flom's Ford in Powell years ago, also was critical. He said Steward's purchase showed “flagrant disregard of fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers.”

“There's a purpose for policy,” Burke said, referencing Park County's vehicle policy.

The policy, adopted by commissioners one year ago, states that the county will purchase vehicles “through a competitive bidding process,” and that the vehicles “should be purchased from dealers within Park County when possible.”

It also states that the Park County Commission “shall determine the disposal of all vehicles.”

Steward told the commissioners he had tried to follow their policy, and questioned if, as an elected official, he was actually bound by it.

Commissioners said it was their responsibility to ensure the county's money is spent wisely.

In his statement, Steward noted that he was spending money the commission had already allocated to the sheriff's department's budget.

In a written statement provided to the media, Steward said that he knew “political issues” would arise if he purchased the vehicles from the broker.

But after thinking about it, “I didn't take long to make the decision to make the deal as I refuse to put the safety of the deputies and citizens in jeopardy for political reasons,” Steward wrote.

After the meeting, Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said battles over who controls the budget are common in Wyoming counties, calling it an “age old” question.

Skoric said Tuesday's meeting had not resolved that question.

Bert Miller of Webster Motors told comissioners that the situation showed why the bidding process is so important, noting a state statute that gives Wyoming businesses preferential treatment in bidding.

“Thank goodness we have some protection,” Miller said.

He added that no one will ever know what would have happened had the sheriff sought local bids.

Jeanne Orkney, Fremont's business manager in Cody, said that she had put together a bid on the vehicles after the fact and said Fremont could have saved the county several thousand dollars.

Orkney, Commissioner Jill Shockley Siggins and Commission Chairman Bill Brewer's wife are sisters.

Brian Schumard, Fremont's general sales manager in Cody, said Steward's time crunch was “kind of self-imposed.” Shumard said the dealers could have been notified before the vehicles had received so many miles and were in disrepair.

Commissioner Bucky Hall said Steward's mistake was “not informing us before the fact,” and Commissioner Tim French said it was important to look at local dealers.

The matter originally was slated to take place behind closed doors, in a meeting closed to the public, but Steward requested it be open.

Commissioners said they appreciated Steward's job as sheriff in general.