Should voters stop electing sheriffs? Efforts for such a change find little public support

Judging by turnout at a recent hearing, maybe there isn’t all that much interest in an issue that would seem to be an interesting topic for good-government types:

Should the Ramsey County sheriff be appointed, rather than elected?

It’s been an issue on and off in Hennepin County, too, but never seems to gain much traction. That also may be happening this time in the east metro area.

For example, only seven people spoke earlier this month at the Ramsey County Charter Commission’s first public hearing on the issue, and all of them opposed putting the issue on the November ballot.

Mike Fratto, the new chair of the commission, had predicted beforehand that the meeting would be dominated by those favoring the status quo: continued election of the Ramsey County sheriff. He was right.

The next commission hearing on the topic is Monday, with other hearings scheduled for March and April, but Fratto said that if reaction continues to be so one-sided, he’ll consider canceling the final meeting.

“We’ll definitely have the next one and probably the next one, but depending on turnout, I’m not sure if we’ll have the last one.”

Issue considered before
This isn’t a new debate; Ramsey County looked deeply into the matter in 1995, going so far as to commission a lengthy report from the Hamline University Graduate School on the issue. The recommendation: Retain election.

And they’ve talked about it in Hennepin County, too, where County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin floated the idea in the mid-1990s. Bottom line there: “The opposition was so strong, it’s on the back burner,” McLaughlin said recently.

But he still thinks it’s a good idea.

“If you look at what the sheriff does, it just doesn’t warrant election,” he said. “It’s a vestige of the Robin Hood days, the Sheriff of Nottingham. The sheriff was the crown’s local representative, with all-encompassing powers to enforce the law and collect taxes. That’s where we got the notion to elect the sheriff.

“We don’t elect police chiefs of our cities. We don’t elect the people who run the workhouses. The sheriff operates the jail, but that’s not all that different from what the administrators of other facilities do, and we appoint them.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek

“All the things a sheriff does – running the jail, executing warrants, supervising patrols, responsibility for emergency response – are very important things.  I don’t mean to diminish what they do, but when we elect someone, the expectation is that special judgments are being asked to be exercised, judgments that warrant the direct oversight of the voters,” McLaughlin said.

“So I still think it’s a good idea [to seek appointment] but it’s a tough sell. People I talked to at the Legislature and the general public don’t seem to want to reduce the number of people they get to elect.”

Sheriffs in the state’s most populous counties, Hennepin and Ramsey, are very political animals, well suited to running for, and winning, office every four years.

In Hennepin County, Sheriff Rich Stanek is a longtime Minneapolis police officer who served five terms in the Legislature.

Last year, he was criticized when his office prepared a training video based on the department’s reaction to the I-35 bridge collapse. Some said it was a poorly disguised political ad, but Stanek – on his website – called the video an important training tool and expressed disappointment at those who would criticize it.

“I have received feedback from law enforcement agencies across the state and nation thanking the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office for producing this video to train law enforcement and other professionals in the lessons learned during the bridge collapse water recovery,” he says on the website.

In Ramsey County, Sheriff Bob Fletcher, a veteran St. Paul police officer, was a St. Paul City Council member in the 1980s. He ran for mayor of St. Paul in 1989 but was defeated by Council Member Jim Scheibel.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher

Ramsey is a special case
Ramsey County is the state’s only home rule charter county, making it easier to put questions like this up for a vote. Other counties, such as Hennepin, would need authority from the Legislature to make such a change. And there has been no push for it.

In fact, according to the 1995 Hamline report, with very few exceptions, elected sheriffs are the norm around the country.

In Rhode Island, the sheriff is appointed by the governor; in Hawaii, a sheriff-like position is appointed by the state Supreme Court and the governor. In two Colorado counties and in Washington’s King County, sheriffs are appointed,

According to the report:

“In 3,094 other jurisdictions throughout the country, the sheriffs are elected, although in some jurisdictions sheriffs are appointed to fill out unexpired terms if there is a death or resignation of the incumbent. Some jurisdictions have explored switching to a system of appointed sheriffs, and at least one has had an appointed sheriff and returned to a system of elections. In 1994, Iowa held a referendum to change the status of sheriff from elected to appointed. That initiative was heavily defeated by the voters. In Multnomah County, Ore., the sheriff became appointed on Jan. 1, 1967. [Until] late 1978, the county board had appointed six different sheriffs. Due to dissatisfaction with that system, the jurisdiction’s voters returned to election of the sheriff.”

Political pressure an issue?
Because the Ramsey County proposal comes soon after the hard-fought sheriff’s race in 2006 – where incumbent Sheriff Bob Fletcher narrowly beat challenger Bill Finney, the retired St. Paul police chief – there are suspicions of political payback in the Charter Commission hearings. And there have been suggestions that Commission Chairman Mike Fratto, a retired state administrator, is a Finney supporter.

Not so, Fratto said.

“I once hired Bill [Finney] years ago to work security when I ran theaters in downtown St. Paul. But I have never campaigned for Bill or contributed money to his campaigns,” Fratto said.

He did campaign for Fletcher’s opponent in 1994, when the sheriff was first elected. That candidate, Jim Daly, was a former classmate of Fratto’s.

Fratto says he’s trying to keep this proposal from becoming political or focused on personalities.

“This has been going on longer than the last election,” Fratto said. “Bob Fletcher just happens to be the person in that seat right now. And a change to appointment sure doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be the one appointed.”

Fratto said he heard about the election/appointment controversy at his first charter commission meeting three years ago, when a subcommittee did some work on the issue.

“I’m not the kind of person who believes in a subcommittee doing work and nothing ever coming of it. So now that I’m chair, I’ve moved it forward so we can determine if something more needs to be done,” he said.

“I’m not the one pushing this,” Fratto said. “But I’m the chair now and it’s my responsibility to move it on.”

He said he’s not heard negative reports about Fletcher’s work as sheriff, although he said there have been suggestions that there might be a lack of diversity in the sheriff’s department.

“The irony is, I fully realize that the sheriff believes I am pushing this forward. I guess when you are outspoken, people will assume certain things. There’s not much I can do about that.”

Fletcher, who is now in his fourth four-year term as sheriff, called the appointment vs. election question “a fair public policy issue.”

“I’m never opposed to citizens weighing in on how their government should be structured, but there’s plenty of evidence throughout the country that elective office of sheriff is working well,” Fletcher said. “I’m confident that voters won’t want to give up their right to vote for sheriff.”

Fratto, who has a master’s degree in public administration and started the Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless effort in 1986, said he heard several years ago that there was an opening on the charter commission.

“I’ve been involved in activism-type stuff and public policy things for years, so it seemed like a good idea. Four meetings a year — sounded pretty good, and you get to say you’re a commissioner,” he joked.

“I didn’t expect to be doing this type of thing when I applied for the position. But these questions keep coming before the commission, and I figured it’s time to go through the process, then make a decision on whether to place it on the ballot. If we choose not to [put it on the ballot], at least we can say we did due diligence and made the decision not to do it. If we do [put it on the ballot] then the voters will decide.”

“The task for me is trying to keep the hearing process outside of the obvious politics.”

Joe Kimball, a former columnist and reporter for the Star Tribune, reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politic and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by David Gross on 02/03/2008 - 11:59 am.

    I found Commissioner McLaughlin’s (Hennepin County) comments logically confusing. I didn’t understand his rationale leading to his conclusion, “not warrant[ing] election,” from the vestigial artifact of “the crown’s [apointed] representative to enforce the law and to collect taxes” back to appointment. Apparently he believes that we should go to an appointment system, where the Sheriff is NOT accountable to the people, owes his/her allegiance to those responsible for the appointment, and can “lord it over” subjects, not protect and serve citizens.

    I think McLaughlin’s example of the police chiefs cuts both ways as a bad example. Independently elected law enforcement has, I believe, a tendency to be more properly [constitutionally?] principled and respectful, and less likely to have an “us versus them,” antagonistic point of view toward the citizens who can vote them out of office, at least in theory.

    Rather, Minnesota, learning from history, the English Monarchy, and the Revolution, which, incidentally/obviously was a rejection of the English Model of government, reacted to the Sheriff of Nottingham example by establishing a system whereby it couldn’t happen that way, here, at least in theory. I think that was for a very good reason and inherent in the uniquely-American concept of freedom, federalism, and self-government through a government of limited powers, based upon the Constitution. What a concept!

    I have had many, mnay occasions, over the last three decades, to explain to Europeans the fundamental concept of “the Land of the Free; Home of the Brave” arising out of our Constitutional and {therefore ?] American life view. They are always and simply amazed; it is almost, to them, beyond conception. The goal, here, is not “efficiency;” but, rather, freedom. Let’s keep it that way, based on, at least, the world’s experience of the last century. Freedom and the power of the people, once lost, is extremely difficult to regain and often costly in terms of life, liberty, and property, three of the essential things explicitly protected against government interference. I can’t think of a single valid reason for a citizen to give up any power s/he has over government, except laziness. lack of diligence, and lack of vigilance.

    Now, for my own segue: I see in the news that there is a movement toward the appointment of judges and Justices in the State prominently spearheaded by Justice Alan Page and former Governue Al Quie. Apparently, some of the judges of the state are concerned that the First Amendment applies to judicial elections since Greg Wersal took on the system and won in the United States Supreme Court.

    A short description of the proposed system: “Under the new system, all judges would initially be appointed by the governor after a commission nominated the most qualified candidates. Another commission would evaluate their performances. Voters’ role would be to periodically make an up or down decision about whether to keep a judge in office. If rejected by voters, a judge would be replaced by a new appointed judge.” From the Star Tribune, January 31, 2008.

    For the same reasons, above, we should not give up our abilities to affect law enforcement, law, and justice in the state to some appointed person, even if they are appointed as the result of the alleged “qualifications” determined by a commission comprized of members who occupy certain stated positions in government, which just so happen also to be, largely, appointed. Hmmm, appointees appointed by a commission of appointees, evaluated by another commission of appointees, and, at best, subject to replacement by another appointee of some appointees. This is the reaction of Minnesota political thought to the retention/acquisition of freedom by the citizen guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Are we crazy!? Or don’t we want to/are we too lazy remain free?

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