Reassigning Cottonwood Heights' top police officer could prove to be a costly move for Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder.
By shifting Lt. Robby Russo to the Kearns/Magna precinct last week, Winder ignited Cottonwood Heights officials' interest in starting up their own police force. The city contracts with the sheriff's office for police protection but is considering going its own way.
"If they are really interested in retaining us on as a contract city, why would they be taking these types of adversarial approaches?" Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore said Tuesday. "Do they really want us?"
Russo served as Cottonwood Heights' top officer for about 2 1/2 years before being placed on administrative leave July 12 for undisclosed reasons. The sheriff's office refuses to comment on Russo's situation because it is a personnel matter, Winder said.
Winder said the decision to "reassign" Russo to the west side should have nothing to do with making a major decision like starting an independent police force.
He said he is trying to keep Cottonwood Heights and four other cities that contract with the sheriff's office happy. Two cities, Draper and Taylorsville, already dropped out and started their own police forces, and Winder doesn't want to see that happen again.
However, he said his first priority is upholding the internal policies of the sheriff's office.
"No contract is more important than the internal processes of the sheriff's office," Winder said. "This should have no bearing whether a city should change their police model or not."
Cullimore believes the sheriff's office violated its contract with the city by reassigning Russo without the city's consent.
The contract does have two conflicting issues in its language. At one point, the contract says all precinct commanders are employees of the county and subject to its policies. But the contract also gives the city some control, including a say in the hiring and firing of some officers.
When asked if the city would file a lawsuit to get its top officer back, Cullimore said, "That gets ugly, and I don't know if we're interested in litigating that.
"We're very disappointed. We fully expected (Russo) would be reinstated to our precinct and believed our contract permitted us to request that."
Winder said he is working on clarifying the contract to avoid issues like this in the future.
Russo started working in the Magna/Kearns precinct last Thursday, administrators confirmed Thursday. But after working two days last week, Russo said he decided to take some extended vacation time until the controversy surrounding his suspension has been resolved.
In August, Russo filed a notice of claim with the county saying he intended to sue.
Russo has worked with the sheriff's office for more than 20 years, including four years as head of the narcotics unit.On Tuesday, Cullimore asked Winder for a list of candidates to replace Russo, Winder said.