The colorful law enforcement career of Las Vegas Township Constable John Bonaventura has drawn attention to the wider system of 11 constable offices in Clark County that traditionally keep low profiles, despite having police powers.
Constables usually quietly go about their work of handling evictions and serving court papers. The obscure lawmen, however, also are full-fledged sworn law enforcement officers. They carry a badge and gun and can make arrests.
After Bonaventura was elected in 2010, the constable system in the county got a black eye from the Las Vegas office that hasn’t faded. His office’s misadventures include foul-mouthed deputies in an online reality television pilot that bombed with county commissioners, a wrongful arrest lawsuit, accusations of sexual harassment and allegations of a cover-up to hide database searches for porn actresses.
County commissioners in March 2013 abolished Bonaventura’s office, effective when his term ends in January.
They have examined the constable system as a whole, casting a net beyond Bonaventura. Earlier this month, commissioners added more transparency to two other large constable offices. Starting in January, the constables in Henderson and North Las Vegas townships will start receiving a flat annual salary of $103,456, which matches that paid to Bonaventura.
That move came after the county estimated that Henderson Township Constable Earl Mitchell paid himself about $180,000 in 2013, and North Las Vegas Township Constable Herb Brown paid himself more than $250,000. Both paid themselves from fees the office collected.
The county’s changes also require that the Henderson and North Las Vegas offices use an enterprise fund for expenditures. The enterprise fund will hold the money collected from fees and add county oversight to expenditures that didn’t previously exist. The Las Vegas office is already on an enterprise fund.
Constables, elected to four-year terms, usually operate with little financial oversight. Their expenditures and any salaries from fees usually are shielded from the public eye. Secret, too, are the salaries of all deputies, who are sworn officers with a badge and gun.
The county’s reforms add more transparency to the two larger constable offices but leave the opaque system unchanged for the eight constable offices in outlying areas. Those constables must file only a quarterly report showing how much they collect in fees but are not required to disclose expenses.
That level of disclosure for elected officials with law enforcement powers falls short of a transparent system, said Victor Joecks, executive vice president of Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank based in Las Vegas that analyzes Nevada government salary and transparency issues.
“Citizens have a right to know how much that person’s getting paid,” Joecks said. “This is not someone who started a business. … When you’re an elected official working in an office with police powers, you should have an expectation of being transparent.”
A throwback to the state’s Wild West era, constables predate county sheriffs in Nevada. They have a limited set of law enforcement duties and never had much earning power. There typically has been little concern about transparency with finances, as there’s not much money involved.
Constables say that’s still very much the case.
“Maintaining the current system does make sense at this point, and the reason for that is, basically, it’s a part-time job,” said Laughlin Township Constable Jordan Ross. “But more importantly, it’s a position where the business fluctuates. It can be busy one moment but not busy the next.”
Paying constables and deputies from the fees they bring in, rather than a fixed amount, relieves taxpayers from the burden of set salaries, Ross said.
“If there is no work to support them, there’s no expense,” Ross said.
Besides potentially earning a profit from fees, constables also get a token county salary — $1,000 a year for the constables in Moapa, Searchlight, Moapa Valley Township, Goodsprings and Bunkerville. In Boulder, Laughlin and Mesquite townships, it’s $1,750.
These constables serve tiny bedroom communities. Searchlight has 539 people; Goodsprings has 229, according to U.S. census data.
Ross taps fee money to cover both his office overhead and his personal expenses.
“The operating account, that’s my money,” he said. “I can use it to pay compensation to my deputy constables, and I also can use it to take my wife out for dinner for our 30th anniversary.”
Ross noted that constables, like anyone else, must pay taxes on their earnings and can deduct business expenses but not personal spending.
“If I go out to lunch with my wife, that’s not a deductible expense,” he said.
The account holds only the money from fees, not tax dollars. A separate trust account is used to hold money such as bank garnishments, which are sent on to other parties.
Constables are responsible for the financial success of their operation.
“If you make a profit, you do,” Ross said. “If you don’t, that’s your problem.”
The available public records show that being a constable in rural Clark County isn’t a path to riches. The Laughlin constable’s office, for example, reported $64,159 in fees in 2012.
Ross said it makes sense for larger offices such as Henderson and North Las Vegas to be on an enterprise fund, but not smaller offices that draw in little money.
Constables also are responsible for their bills, regardless of their income.
Ross, for example, said he racked up some $22,000 in legal costs after Las Vegas Constable John Bonaventura sued him in a turf dispute.
The job isn’t without its perks.
Despite the meager base salary, constables also are eligible for county health insurance benefits and retirement. Benefits for one constable cost the county about $12,084 a year, which includes group health insurance, Medicare and state pension contributions.
The county’s benefits costs for the constables and several county civilian employees budgeted for this year is $144,958 for the eight outlying constable offices. The county’s general fund also helps support the eight outlying constable offices on a limited basis. Those expenditures are public, unlike the money from fees.
The county budgeted $247,589 this fiscal year. The bulk of that goes toward benefits, pay, part-time clerical help for some of the larger offices and salaries. The money also helps cover limited costs such as telephone bills, office supplies and postage.
The county budgeted $234,436 for the Henderson constable and $208,060 for the North Las Vegas constable operations.
Mesquite Township Constable Duane Thurston, a 19-year veteran of the job, said he knows he won’t get rich serving court papers five to eight times a week.
“This is like a part-time job for me,” said Thurston, who owns a carpet cleaning and janitorial business. “When I’m slow, I can go out and serve the papers, usually in the afternoon.”
His biggest expense is his personal car. Thurston said he wouldn’t object if all the office’s financial expenditures were public.
“I think it should be a public record,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with that.”
Goodsprings Township Constable Gary Rogers said the offices, even small shops, have a lot of expenses, including bookkeeping.
“We are a hybrid,” he said. “We are a government agency, but we are also a private business. I get zero money from the taxpayer.”
The county budgeted $500 for his office supplies, budget reports show. Aside from that, he’s on his own.
Rogers said he’s not sure whether his expenditures should be public, noting that they don’t involve taxpayer dollars.
“As far as what we spend to run the offices when it’s totally private — I’m not sure,” he said, comparing the operation to a private-sector business. “I don’t know how I feel about that. …. There’s nobody giving me government money, which would absolutely make it their business. I’m really conflicted because I don’t know what the answer is.”
Contact Ben Botkin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2904. Follow @BenBotkin1 on Twitter.