Is Mike Williams still Duval sheriff?
Jacksonville City Council President Sam Newby has asked the city’s top lawyer to determine whether Mike Williams unwittingly vacated the office of Duval County sheriff when he and his wife moved full-time to Nassau County last year.
City general counsel Jason Teal said he expects to have an opinion ready on or before Wednesday. He said he would not comment further.
Williams maintains he remains sheriff because of a state law change — which he has not specified — that he claims allows sheriffs to live outside the counties in which they were elected and are responsible for policing. Rumors that Williams had moved out of Jacksonville had circulated for weeks, and he confirmed it on camera Thursday evening to Times-Union news partner First Coast News, disclosing for the first time that he had moved in preparation for his eventual retirement even though he has about a year left on the job.
” … there’s multiple sheriffs around the state that do not live in the county in which they serve,” Williams said.
But Jacksonville’s charter — its governing document — is clear: Should the sheriff “remove his residence from Duval County during his term of office” the position “shall become vacant.” There is no Florida statute that either requires sheriffs to live in the counties in which they serve or prohibits cities and counties from imposing such a requirement.
Jason Gabriel, who served as Jacksonville’s general counsel until last year, said he believes the “charter residency requirement applies here,” meaning the office of sheriff has been vacated.
Gabriel said there are times when state law and the charter address the same subject area, and in those cases city attorneys strive “to read those laws in harmony with each other.” Absent a specific state prohibition on Jacksonville imposing a certain law, like a residency requirement, however, “the charter applies,” he said.
And since there is no such ban on Duval imposing a residency requirement, the residency requirement in the charter is valid.
“Having said that, I am sure the Office of General Counsel is working diligently and and as quickly as possible in reviewing, analyzing and coming to a resolution on this matter (among the multitude of matters at hand) and I have utmost confidence and faith in that process and the lawyers looking into this matter.”
Jacksonville, one of 20 so-called chartered counties in Florida, has enhanced powers of self government that, historically, the Office of General Counsel has jealously guarded. The Jacksonville Office of General Counsel is unusually powerful: The top lawyer oversees an office of nearly 50 attorneys and is charged with resolving local legal disputes. The general counsel can, when asked, issue opinions that carry the binding force of law, as will be the case when Teal releases his view on Williams’ status this week.
Still, that wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the issue. Were Teal to, for example, find that Williams had vacated the office, Williams could file suit to test his legal theory about the charter requirement in court and convince a judge to reinstate him.
Teal’s plan to have an opinion by Wednesday communicates the seriousness of the issue and telegraphs that the question is not the obvious call Williams seems to think it is.
Residency issue could result in special election this year
Often, the question of “residency” in the context of candidates and campaigns can be fraught. There is no set legal definition of what constitutes a “resident,” so in the past courts have had to consider a mix of factors: Where does the candidate spend the majority of their time? If the candidate owns two homes, which one has a homestead exemption applied?
In this case, however, Williams was blunt: He has left Jacksonville for good.
Should Teal come to the view held by his predecessor — that the charter’s clear language applies to Williams — the effect of his opinion would be dramatic and have uncertain down-stream effects. It would not only mean Duval County does not currently have a sitting sheriff, it would also mean there has been a vacancy in the office since the time Williams officially gave up his Jacksonville residency about a year ago. That could leave decisions about hirings, firings, promotions and discipline within the large police agency over that timespan in a legal gray area, and it could stretch to include decisions over procurement and more.
Just determining the scope of the mess that would need cleaning up would take complex legal analysis all to its own.
If Williams harbored any doubts about his decision to leave the county in which he was elected and served, he betrayed none of it.
“Well look, I’m here every day, again, so, if someone has a question or wants to reach out, they can do that, and we can obviously have conversations about things that are happening in the city, and I’m available everyday,” Williams told First Coast News.
Over the past year, however, pastors, activists and other community leaders have said pinning down Williams for a meeting has been incredibly difficult and time consuming. ICARE, a prominent local group of ministers and faith leaders that support criminal justice reform, told the Times-Union it took the group six months to secure a meeting with Williams, and the meeting itself was disappointing: A close-minded Williams showed up and flatly refused to take any of the group’s suggestions.
If Williams, as the charter says, is no longer sheriff, the council will likewise have to move quickly. The law calls for a special election “no sooner than 1 month and no later than 6 months after the vacancy occurs.” That would allow the council to schedule a special election in conjunction with the Aug. 23 primaries.
The winner of such a special election would be the top cop for only a short time before needing to run a second campaign.
Williams was term limited and set to be replaced in next year’s city elections in the spring.
T.K. Waters, the sheriff’s chief of investigations, announced his campaign last year and quickly tapped into the same fundraising network that helped bolster Williams and other city Republicans. He is widely believed to be Williams’ preferred candidate to replace him.
Nate Monroe is a metro columnist whose work regularly appears every Thursday and Sunday. Follow him on Twitter @NateMonroeTU.