UPDATE 5:53 p.m.
Oswego County Legislature Chairman James Weatherup issued a statement Monday afternoon saying he had "addressed the issue" with Hilton today and was "confident that the activity of this sort on county time and using county-owned equipment will not be repeated."
"I have spoken to the sheriff and expressed our position about our flag policy and our desire to not see this type of display in the future from his office (or any other) on taxpayer time or taxpayer equipment," Weatherup, R-Hastings, said. "I am confident that we will not see this type of action in the future."
The original story appears below:
OSWEGO — Oswego County Sheriff Don Hilton says the flying of a President Donald Trump campaign flag on a county marine patrol unit this weekend was to “show recognition” for Trump’s support of law enforcement, despite the action appearing to violate local and federal campaign and public service protocols.
In pictures widely circulated on social media and provided by multiple individuals to The Palladium-Times, Hilton is shown on board a boat marked “Oswego County Sheriff” along with several other uniformed individuals during a Sunday flotilla on Oneida Lake. Prominently displayed on the boat is a flag resembling the American flag, but also bearing Trump’s face and campaign slogan “Making America Great Again.” Oswego County officials did not, when asked, deny that it was indeed Hilton and members of his staff in the photographs.
In a Monday press release, Hilton’s office addressed the situation saying that the “Oswego County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol Unit are routinely present at known gatherings on Oneida Lake, Lake Ontario and other bodies of water within our jurisdiction to ensure the ability for a swift response to any emergencies and to preserve the safety for all who attended these events.”
The Sunday, Aug. 2 “Flotilla in Support of President Trump,” the sheriff’s office said, was one such event.
“The flag was flown to show support of the citizens who were attending this event and to show recognition to the ‘President of the United States’ for his constant support of law enforcement,” the statement concludes.
Trump’s policies aside, the use of a taxpayer-funded vehicle operated by taxpayer-funded employees to brandish public support for one side in a political election has raised eyebrows. While support for the president of the United States can be a non-partisan effort, the use of Trump’s signature, trademarked promise to continue “Making America Great Again” is a clear campaign sentiment, not a governmental one.
“Oswego County has a policy that says we’re a unit of the American government, so the American flag is the only one that can be flown on county property,” Oswego County Administrator Phil Church told the Pall-Times Monday. “We prohibit the display of any type of political statement.”
Church declined to speculate as to what, if any, consequences Hilton could face for violating that prohibition.
The office of the county administrator last year in June issued a memo to all Oswego County employees and officials titled “Political campaign activity prohibited at work,” which Church says states plainly the county’s policy and disposition towards political affairs while on the job.
“We must assure our citizens that we provide public services to them free of improper political influence, and that public funds, time and resources are not used for partisan political purposes.”
When questioned as to the potential illegality of Hilton’s actions, Church also declined to speculate.
New York Civil Service Law S.107.1 reads: “no person in (civil service) shall use his official authority or influences to coerce the political action of any person or body.” A direct inquiry to county officials as to whether Hilton’s actions violate this statute was not returned.
The Oswego County Sheriff’s Office also receives funding from the federal government for a variety of initiatives including the county’s recent high intensity drug trafficking area (HIDTA) designation. Federal funds are prohibited from being used for political activities under the Hatch Act. It is unclear if this law would apply in this case.
The Palladium-Times has submitted a series of specific questions and multiple requests for interviews with leaders of Oswego County government and Sheriff Don Hilton. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
While county officials were reluctant to address the issue, local Democrats had no such qualms.
“This is a slap in the face to taxpayers,” said County Legislator and Minority Leader Tom Drumm, D-Oswego. “There needs to be accountability here. This was a mistake, a big mistake, and for (Hilton’s) statement to double down on something that’s widely prohibited... it’s motivated me to speak out.”
Drumm said he hopes Hilton “clarifies” his position, and assures citizens “it is not going to happen again.”
“This shouldn’t be a complicated issue,” Drumm said. “The boat they’re on, flying that flag, is a taxpayer boat. There’s just not a place legally and from a basic governmental standpoint.”
Tracy DeCann of Oswego served as the Oswego County VFW Commander from 2013-2014, and said Monday she was “outraged” by the photos.
“Putting this flag on county property is a tragic statement of the face and mindset of our sheriff’s department,” DeCann said. “You want to put it in your yard, whatever. But on county property saying that is justified?”
DeCann added that she thought Hilton “owed the people of Oswego County an apology.”
The kerfuffle even attracted the attention of some bigger CNY political names.
“I’m appalled to see the Oswego Sheriff’s department, a government agency, fly a desecrated American flag on government property,” Dana Balter, Democrat for Congress told The Palladium-Times. “This decision is unacceptable and is not at all a proper way a 'to show support' or ‘recognition.’ The incident should be investigated immediately and those responsible must be held accountable.”