The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously handed down a ruling siding with the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) against Sheriff Clovis B. Watson in a budget dispute that began under Watson’s predecessor.
The case involved a 2016 decision by then-Sheriff Sadie Darnell to reappropriate some $840,000 in the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) budget without approval from the BOCC. The commission sued in 2017, saying Darnell did not have authority to unilaterally make such a move.
Although lower courts ruled in favor of the sheriff, the Supreme Court found that Darnell did not follow proper procedure.
“We conclude that when seeking to transfer money between objects, the Sheriff must follow the budgetary amendment process established by the Legislature in chapter 129, and that the Sheriff failed to do so here,” the court wrote in a 30-page opinion signed by all seven justices. “The existence of a detailed process for the review and approval of funding decisions at the object level, reflected in the plain, whole text of the statute, means that the Legislature decided the Sheriff must obtain the County’s approval before amending those appropriations that the County had previously fixed and approved from the funds it had collected.”
The court went on to offer detailed analysis of the applicable statutes, which it said provide “a bulwark against cavalier [budget] adjustments” of the sort Darnell executed.
“We quash the First District’s decision and hold that the Sheriff is not permitted under chapters 30 and 129, Florida Statutes, to make object-level transfers without the approval of the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners,” the court ordered.
Current Sheriff Watson issued a statement downplaying the significance of the opinion, saying the ruling is “not a concern.”
“The Court’s decision does not change the way we have been operating over the past year, and we will continue to do so,” Watson said. “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.”
Watson defeated Darnell in the 2020 Democratic primary for sheriff. No Republican ran for the office.
In a statement provided to Mainstreet Daily News, the BOCC noted it has not been in conflict with Watson on this issue. Still, it touted the decision as important for the community.
“This is a victory for good governance,” BOCC Chair Marihelen Wheeler said. “This community deserves accountability, transparency, and clear communication between the County, the Constitutional Officers, and our citizens.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.