Florida Supreme Court says former Alachua County sheriff failed to seek approval for budgetary changes

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In concluding a five-year legal battle against former Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favor of Alachua County’s Board of Commissioners, finding that Darnell was not permitted to make changes to how the budget is spent without the approval of county commissioners.

Alachua County spokesperson Mark Sexton said the county is pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision.

“This is the law,” he said. “It was our view that we were simply asking for the laws on the books to be enforced, and the Supreme Court agreed.”

In 2016, Darnell moved about $840,000 between objects, or certain lines under the sheriff’s budget, without the county’s approval. About $700,000 of that money was transferred from jail personnel expenditures to her operating expenses and capital spending.

“A significant change in the budget at the object level or above must come back to the board and obtain board approval in the same way that any part of the county budget would do so,” Sexton said.

County commissioners filed a lawsuit against Darnell in 2017, alleging she improperly spent an already approved sheriff’s budget.

Both the district court and the circuit court previously ruled that Darnell does have the authority to make these adjustments without the board’s approval under the notion that once the county approved the sheriff’s budget, the sheriff has authority over the budgets and can make transfers when necessary.

Following those rulings, the county commission appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Under Florida statute, a sheriff’s proposed spending budget must fall under three categories: general law enforcement; corrections and detention alternative facilities; or court services, excluding service of process.

The commissioners who filed the lawsuit believed Darnell spent money on things outside of the original spending plan, and the concern was that it was not within her authority to make spending adjustments without the approval of the board.

​​“If you’re going to go take money outside of one object level and into another, then there has to be board discussion and board approval of that,” Sexton said.

The complaint stated that Darnell caused the loss of “hundreds of thousands” of taxpayer dollars by transferring the funds without approval.

Under normal protocols, if a sheriff wants to appeal the county’s decision on a budgetary matter, he or she must file an appeal to Florida’sAdministration Commission within 30 days of the board’s approval. 

Statute 129 states that “items placed in the budget of the board of county commissioners pursuant to this law” are subject to “the same provisions of law as the county annual budget.”

Darnell, whom Sheriff Clovis Watson defeated in 2020, left office in January 2021. Sexton said the county does not anticipate any of the same conflicts to reappear.

In an Alachua County Sheriff’s Office press release, Watson said the ruling is not a concern because it is the way the sheriff’s office has been operating over the past year.

“The goal of my administration has always been to work in collaboration with the chair and Board of County Commissioners in order to serve the people of Alachua County, unimpeded and I am confident the Alachua County Commission shares the same vision as we move forward together,” he wrote.

Sexton said the decision in favor of the county commission should not affect the authority of Florida sheriffs to reallocate their funding. 

About Kristin Bausch

Kristin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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