Public opinion is right - sheriffs should be elected
On more than one occasion during the past decade, members of the Post-Bulletin’s editorial board have debated the merits of electing county sheriffs.
Strong arguments can be made that sheriffs should be hired by county boards, not chosen by popular vote. Why not let elected officials choose from a pool of highly qualified, experienced applicants, much as a city hires a police chief or a fire chief, or as a school board hires a superintendent? A sheriff who is hired, rather than elected, would be free to do the job without worrying about his/her popularity — and wouldn’t have to waste time planting yard signs, knocking on doors and producing campaign literature when election season rolls around.
And don’t get us started on the fairly common practice of having sheriffs step down in mid-term, handing the reins and the advantage of incumbency to their preferred successor.
Still, we’ve never advocated the abolition of elections for sheriff, primarily because we can’t find evidence that people are dissatisfied with the current situation. Indeed, quite the opposite is true — people want to vote for their county sheriff.
Nationwide, 46 states have elections for county sheriffs. There are no sheriffs in Alaska, Connecticut or Hawaii. Rhode Island has one appointed sheriff with authority over its five counties. Nationwide, just three counties have opted for appointed sheriffs. In 1994, Iowa voters put the matter to a referendum and loudly declared that they wanted to elect their sheriffs.
In Minnesota, recent efforts to abolish elections for sheriff in Ramsey and Hennepin counties have failed — with the latest being in 2008, when the Ramsey County Charter Commission deadlocked in an 8-8 vote that, if passed, would have put the matter to a public vote. (One member of the 17-member commission was absent.)
We bring this history up because right now, two sheriffs in southeast Minnesota have been making a lot of headlines — and not for busting up meth labs or cracking down on drunk drivers. Sheriff Rodney Bartsh of Wabasha County has been the most outspoken advocate for the controversial “Safe Driving” programs that recently were ruled illegal, and Dodge County Sheriff Jim Jensen turned heads and attracted a firestorm of criticism when he fired his chief deputy for alleged disloyalty.
In nine months, voters will have their say. Perhaps this is as it should be. Imagine, for example, that job security for Wabasha County’s sheriff hinged on keeping the support of three county commissioners. Given what’s been happening there of late, it would be difficult — perhaps impossible — to attract quality candidates for this position, or to keep them around once they took the job. Wabasha County already has encountered this problem with its county administrator position.
Granted, not every county board is as dysfunctional as Wabasha County’s, but the fact is that a good, ethical sheriff’s office will occasionally step on some powerful toes. That’s the nature of law enforcement, and a good sheriff must be able to do the job without constantly looking over his or her shoulder.
That’s why it’s best to have thousands of people make the hiring decision, rather than just five or seven.
— Post-Bulletin of Rochester