OSWEGO — Oswego County Sheriff Don Hilton released a defiant statement after more than a dozen residents spoke Thursday to criticize or support the county’s top cop for flying a political campaign flag on a department watercraft.
Fifteen citizens took part in the public hearing after the Oswego County Legislature meeting, some speaking out against Hilton raising an American flag with "Making America Great Again" and an image of President Donald Trump during a county marine patrol on Oneida Lake Aug. 2.
Some called for his resignation, while others looked for an apology.
"What our sheriff decided to do, I cannot agree with," Hannibal resident and county Democratic Committee Chairman Gordon Prosser said. "He's elected to represent and protect all the people. What he does on his own time is his prerogative, that's fine, but to not admit a mistake and take the stand he is taking, to me just represents not the best of law enforcement, not the best of setting an example for everyone in the county.”
Hilton released a statement after the meeting ended in which he said he met with legislators privately and assured them he will not fly another altered U.S. flag on county property again.
“I respect the right of people to have a critical opinion of what I did –— this is America after all, and freedom of speech is part of what the flag stands for,” Hilton said in the statement. “But let’s keep a clear-headed perspective here: I flew a political flag on taxpayers’ property, yet many of the people criticizing me for that also defend rioters who destroy taxpayers’ property! Is it a sign of people thinking reasonably when they support policies that excuse and set free those who commit criminal acts of violence and assault, while at the same time call for the termination of me and my Deputies simply for flying a flag? It is not.” Click here for full letter.
The public hearing after the Legislature meeting lasted more than 45 minutes. Every speaker was allowed up to five minutes, but most finished within two or three.
Sandra Nellis of Mexico asked the legislature if Hilton's public support of Trump meant if someone displaying a bumper sticker or flag of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would receive different treatment from police.
"Does that mean (sheriff’s deputies) are going to be more apt to pull someone over because of that?" Nellis said. "I truly believe, not only myself but other county members, would find him more respectable if he would get up and apologize and say he was incorrect instead of playing it off the way he has."
Neil F. Barney Jr. of Oswego read aloud his letter to Legislator Marie Schadt, one of two Democrats on the legislature.
"To think for a second that this was acceptable in any shape, form or fashion shows a profound lack of judgment on Sheriff Don Hilton's part. If this is how Sheriff Don Hilton operates, I must call into question the hiring practices of the sheriff's department, and the training of all personnel including the supervisors," Barney said. "I call for the immediate resignation of Sheriff Don Hilton. This is a horrible stain on our sheriff's department and has broken the trust I once had in the Oswego County Sheriff's Department."
Earlier this month, Oswego County Legislature Chairman James Weatherup, R-Central Square, issued a statement saying he addressed the issue with Hilton and was confident it wouldn't be repeated.
"The sheriff's refusal to apologize despite Chairman Weatherup's admonishment of his actions is upsetting to me," Oswego resident Patty Familo said. "I'd like to suggest to the sheriff that there are many law-abiding citizens who support law enforcement but cannot support his disregard of the public trust."
Some speakers supported Hilton, defending his actions and character.
Oswego resident Joe Saltalamachia said Hilton was a "nice guy" who put the Trump flag on the sheriff’s boat to show support.
"Who did he hurt? Nobody," Saltalamachia said. "This is all crap. You see all this stuff on TV. They say nothing about anybody doing anything bad. Anybody that's speaking their mind, they're putting you down. That's wrong."
Kathy Saltalamachia believed the display of the flag wasn't a political move, but more of a show of support for law enforcement and respect to the sitting president.
"I don't know Sheriff Hilton but I feel like he's the kind of man that needs to be in office, that's defending our rights and standing up for one of the only politicians in the country these days that defends law enforcement," Kathy Saltalamachia said.
Hastings resident Kenetta Windey said the situation was blown out of proportion because of which side the flag showed support for.
"Let's be honest, if it were a Black Lives Matter flag, it wouldn't have mattered, but because it's supporting our current president of the United States of America, it's a big deal," Windey said. "Let's face it, President Trump is the only one backing the police in today's crazy and out of control society."
Former legislator Frank Castiglia was the only speaker to go over his allotted five minutes. He went through the mission statement of the county and legislature, and reminded legislators of the oath they signed.
"No one in these chambers or outside these chambers has the right to stop any one person's ability to support any single political candidate or party," Castiglia said. "No legislative body has the authority to be judge, jury and executioner."
Minority Leader Tom Drumm, D-Oswego, was happy to see people come out during an afternoon session. He said the situation remains fluid, and the next steps would be up to his colleagues.
"It's just important, regardless of your political leanings or your stance on things to have the forum for people to go and speak their mind," Drumm said. "We've looked at this at this as an a-political issue because it has nothing to do with my opinion or right or left. It has to do with the taxpayer. I've said this time and time again: You can't do an act like this on the taxpayer's dime with the taxpayer's resources."