GAMBIER -- The Village of Gambier pays the Knox County Sheriff's Office $87,500 per year for law enforcement services.
Deputies routinely conduct traffic stops, respond to house calls, investigate missing bikes, and issue parking citations to those who violate the village's ordinance, according to village administrator R.C. Wise.
They "may exercise the same powers as the village to perform any law enforcement function, exercise any law enforcement power, or render any law enforcement service on behalf of the village which the village may perform, exercise, or render," according to the contract, which was obtained by Knox Pages.
Sheriff David Shaffer announced Tuesday night, however, that there is one village law his deputies will not be enforcing.
"If you have read information from the Gambier ordinance concerning the mask mandate, it indicates a $25 fine and the Knox County Sheriff's Office is the enforcing body," Shaffer wrote in a Facebook post.
"I have spoken with Mayor Kessler and informed him that deputies will not be citing anyone for violations. We will not put deputies in that situation. We have not enforced mask mandates in the past, and we will not enforce this mandate."
Gambier became the first municipality in Knox County – and one of the first in the state this year – to issue an indoor mask mandate, as COVID-19 cases surge locally and students return to the classroom. Village Council voted 4-1 to approve the ordinance Monday night, following a two-hour public meeting where residents spoke for and against the mandate.
Roughly 24 hours later, Shaffer made his announcement.
Can the sheriff choose which laws to enforce?
Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville said one word gives the sheriff discretion, in this particular instance, over whether or not he wishes to enforce the law: "may."
The ordinance "may be enforced by any sheriff's deputy for Knox County, Ohio or other law enforcement personnel," it reads. Likewise, the contract between the sheriff's office and the village states that deputies "may exercise the same powers as the village to perform any law enforcement function."
The word "may," in this case, gives the sheriff's office the ability to choose whether or not it will enforce the law, McConville said – just like deputies have discretion over whether or not to conduct a traffic stop if they see someone speeding.
“The trick is in the wording of these things ..." McConville explained. "There are elements of discretion in there ... There are lots of ‘may do this, may do that’ when it comes to law enforcement decisions.”
Shaffer added in a comment under his original Facebook post Thursday that "this is not a criminal offense," meaning violations of the ordinance (as presently constructed) could not result in a misdemeanor or felony – only a $25 ticket.
Shaffer told Knox Pages this week that his office's "main function would be to enforce criminal laws," although it does enforce non-criminal laws on certain occasions, including in Gambier, where deputies issue citations to those who violate the village's parking ordinance.
The ordinance was passed in 2012, and according to Wise, deputies wrote $17,000 worth of tickets one year. There were no criminal penalties attached, and all money went back to the village.
“We really don’t do it for revenue," Wise said. "We actually prefer people just be courteous and don’t keep cars in time-limited parking spots longer than (allowed).”
What makes the mask ordinance different then? According to Shaffer, it's the contentious nature of the issue.
“When our officers get involved in that, it’s a gnarly, no-win situation for the officer that has to deal with that. And it’s such a hot-button issue ..." Shaffer said.
"If it’s not a criminal offense, why am I going to put my people in the middle of that and issue some type of fine to someone?"
Shaffer also took issue with the way the ordinance is structured.
"It’s not clear what’s done with that fine, where the money goes, how that’s dealt with," Shaffer said.
“Criminal offenses are pretty laid out – there is the section of what the offense is, here’s what happens when you violate that, and none of that is laid out here. To me, it seems like a lot of gray area and I don’t know how I’d issue that citation or fill out a citation for that, when it doesn’t appear to be a criminal offense.”
Shaffer said his office "was not a part of the discussion into this ordinance." Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler said during Monday's meeting that he consulted numerous local officials during the crafting of the ordinance, but according to Shaffer, his office was not involved.
"I was given notice by the village administrator that they would be having a meeting and it may attract extra attention, and we had an officer available or designated to be able to respond if there was a problem during the meeting," Shaffer said. "But as part of discussion, or being involved, we were not.”
Coronavirus cases have surged in Knox County in recent weeks. There were 202 active cases (the highest number since early February) and 22 COVID-related hospitalizations (the highest number since late January) on Thursday, according to Knox Public Health. Four county residents have died from COVID-19 this month, after zero deaths in June and July combined.
When asked if his decision not to enforce the mask mandate would put Gambier residents' health in jeopardy, Shaffer declined to answer directly.
“I understand the village thinks it’s something they need to act on and they’re acting in the best interest of their residents," Shaffer said, "but I’m not wanting to put our personnel in the middle of that situation.”
Shaffer added that his deputies did not enforce the state's mask mandate last year, which carried a second-degree misdemeanor penalty, for the same reason.
"We did not get involved in that portion, as far as enforcing mandates or any of the (restrictions) put on businesses," Shaffer said. "And by the same token, I don’t expect our people to try to enforce this individually.”
Shaffer said he expects people to "do the right thing and make proper choices" when deciding whether or not to comply with the village's indoor mask mandate.
"If the village has a mask mandate and you don’t agree with it, then I guess don't go to village during this time. If you agree with it, and it encourages you to go there, then that’s fine, too ...
"I have heard there are people looking to remove their students from Wiggin Street because of this, and I think people are trying to get their students into Wiggin Street because of this as well. So we don’t expect everyone is going to be pleased with what Gambier does.
"If the village wants to have that mandate, that’s fine. I trust him when mayor says he’s looking out for the best interests of the citizens ... that's what they believe this is a solution for them. I'm just gonna let people make that choice for themselves.”
Kessler told Knox Pages Thursday that he was "not surprised" by the sheriff's decision not to enforce the ordinance. He still believes the mandate will be effective, given the cooperation he's seen from community leaders in the days since the ordinance was enacted.
“The sheriff’s decision is consistent with their response to other health mandates that were put in-place over the last year. So from that point of view, I can’t say I’m surprised," Kessler said.
"And I’m grateful, because much like there wasn’t enforcement last year, schools and other community partners are still complying and cooperating on this. So from my point of view, there’s no real difference from what we saw in the spring and fall (of last year)."
Kessler said there have been no discussions, to his knowledge, among village council members or administrative staff about potentially changing the ordinance. Council could always call a meeting to do so, he explained, but right now, the village plans to keep the ordinance in-place as currently constructed.
“There have been no discussions about changing the ordinance. And given its temporary nature, I imagine it will stand as written until Oct. 4, when it will either be expired or replaced, or possibly renewed, based on council’s choice," Kessler said.
"Council will meet in September, and if they decide to amend it or pass a new ordinance, that’s their (prerogative). But I’ve not been in any discussions about changing the ordinance, or have been made aware of any … From my perspective, there’s been no action taken to change it as it’s currently enacted.”
While Kessler said his office has received "a fair amount of response" from residents following Monday's council meeting, he remains fully supportive of the mandate. He said he expected this kind of response, given that Gambier is the first municipality in the county to enact such a mandate this year.
“I will say we’ve received a fair amount of response – some positive, some negative, and nothing surprising. I think obviously there is a picture that gets painted on social media and when you’re dealing with a contentious, hot-button cultural issue like this, it draws a lot of comments," Kessler said.
"As I’ve said, everything the village has done, it has done in consultation with our local schools, the college and Knox Public Health. Any decisions made are predicated on those conversations, those relationships, and on the recommendations we’ve seen from the most reputable health boards and organizations that monitor health and public safety.”
Kessler said he invited Shaffer to the village's Public Safety and Personnel Committee meeting Aug. 30 to discuss the mask mandate and other matters.
An examination of the Knox County Sheriff's Office's Facebook posts over the last year shows that after the state passed its mask mandate last July, the sheriff's office did not announce it would not enforce it.
Shaffer said his reason for doing so this time around had to do with workload. After Gambier passed its ordinance Monday night, Shaffer said the county's 911 dispatch center and his office began fielding calls from concerned residents, asking how his office planned to enforce the law.
“We’d already gotten calls from people wanting to know, ‘Were we gonna arrest somebody (for violating the ordinance)?’" Shaffer recalled.
"And I thought, before that is out for an extended period of time, and the dispatch center has to field calls or our officers are gonna have to take calls on it, I’m gonna put a short statement out saying we’re not gonna get involved in enforcing mask mandates, to potentially head off calls fielded by the dispatch center.”
Shaffer published the Facebook post at 9:12 p.m. Tuesday, and it quickly spread like wildfire. It was shared over 1,200 times in the first 12 hours, and it received hundreds of reactions. People on both sides of the issue sparred in the comment section.
Shaffer said it's "not typical" for him to announce on Facebook that his office won't be enforcing a law, but he felt it was necessary in this situation. He added in the comment section Thursday that his "intention (was) not to be political or divisive."
But some residents believe the post did more damage than good.
Thirteen community members gathered outside the village offices Wednesday afternoon, holding signs in support of the mandate. Several said they felt Shaffer's post emboldened those who oppose the law, and granted them permission to disobey it.
"It made them feel that they have all the power and they don’t have to follow the mandate …" said Dr. Natalie Wright, an assistant professor of biology at Kenyon College. "I think in some ways, it legitimized their belief that they shouldn’t have to follow the policy, because the sheriff is agreeing publicly (with that)."
Jami Ingledue, who lives outside the village but whose children attend Wiggin Street Elementary, said "the vast majority" of those who attended the school's open house on Tuesday night abided by the mandate. This gives her hope it will still be effective, and it may still prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Gambier.
"They saw the sign, they were respectful, they put a mask on," Ingledue said. "And there were some that weren’t masked and talking about it, but if we can get 80% of kids in masks, that’s still better than the alternative.”
Still, those present Wednesday worried about the effect Shaffer's announcement could have on the village's ability to fight the virus. Screenshots from the private Facebook group "Knox County Mommies," which has over 2,300 members, show members discussing ways to use the sheriff's statement as a tool to defy the law.
"My plan is to print this sheriff's note, a letter from myself stating my child will not wear a mask, and the opt-out form," one member wrote in the Facebook group, according to a screenshot obtained by Knox Pages. "I will state they can call me if they have a problem with him not wearing it. I hope others will do the same so there will be enough not wearing them that (they) will let it go."
Michelle Mood, a community member who stood outside the village offices Wednesday, called this development "quite distressing."
“They are weaponizing the sheriff’s public statement. They’re screenshotting it; they’re sharing it; they’re using it as a justification to defy the mayor’s order ..." she said. "So I’m very disappointed in the sheriff.”
Despite the online dissent, however, Kessler said mask compliance within the village has been high. And Wiggin Street Elementary Principal Christy Grandstaff said Friday afternoon that her school had seen no mask-related issues through the first two days of instruction.
"We have had a wonderful start ..." Grandstaff said. "(The students) are enjoying their classes and there haven't been any issues regarding masks."
Grandstaff said each student is required to put on their mask before entering the building, and "they are happily engaging in school activities while wearing masks." She expressed appreciation to the school's parents for putting the students first during contentious times.
"I appreciate how those that are not for the mandate have kept the issue at-hand to where it needs to be directed, and allowed our kids to come into school without any anxiety or outside stressors, so they could come in and start the school year in a positive way ..." said Grandstaff, adding that her staff had gotten off to a positive start as well. "We're all in this for the kids."
Through two instructional days, Grandstaff said there have been no positive cases among students or staff. No individuals have been contact-traced as a result.
This is the goal, Kessler said: to keep the village safe amid the surge in COVID-19 cases and to keep its students in school.
"Schools were able to operate, function, stay open and require masking (last year). They had a set policy in-place, and it never shut down. I don’t know of there being any incidents at the school related to mask-wearing. And our goal in this mandate is to put in-place an incentive and to work with community partners to put recommended masking procedures in-place," Kessler said.
"Everything we’re doing, we’re basing off the counsel and recommendations of incredibly accredited health departments and organizations. This is not something that comes lightly."
The mandate is a proactive measure, Kessler explained, aimed at stifling the spread of the virus. If cases subside by Oct. 4, Kessler said council may very well choose to remove it.
"There’s this notion that we like masks … I don’t think that’s true. I don’t want to wear a mask, and I’m tired of making my kids wear masks. I want us to be able to breathe freely and I want my community to be able to breathe freely. At the same time, I have a friend in the ICU (with COVID) …" Kessler said.
"This disease is here in our community, and we can choose not to take it seriously and roll the dice that way, or we can choose to take it seriously and move on from there.”