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Changes could be coming to how King County chooses its sheriff

Changes could be coming to how the King County Sheriff is chosen. (King County Sheriff's Office)

In 1996, King County voters had their say, stating that they wanted the King County Sheriff to be an elected official, not an appointed one.

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Now, that issue is back on the table, and many, like Shift Washington Executive Director Randy Pepple are wondering why.

“The people said we want to elect the sheriff, and the review commission after a few years says, ‘No, we don’t want the people to do that.’ Their rationale for doing so is very thin at best,” Pepple told KIRO Radio.

Every ten years, the King County Executive appoints a charter review commission, whose members are approved by King County Council. The bipartisan commission reviews the charter and makes recommendations to the council for changes. Items that are approved by the council then go on to the voters in the general election for a final say.

Toby Nixon, a member of the bipartisan Charter Review Commission, a Kirkland City Councilmember, and the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, thinks he knows why commissioners proposed the change to how King County’s sheriff is chosen.

“The people who are the proponents of this idea like they fact that they can go anywhere in the country to find the most qualified person instead of being limited to only those who are already registered voters in King County for the past year, which is what you have to be to run for Sheriff now,” he described.

According to Nixon, there are concerns that reforming the Sheriff’s Office becomes difficult when you promote from within the county, rather than bringing in a relative outsider.

“If you wanted to really reform the way the Sheriff’s Office works, would you necessarily want to promote somebody from inside the department to do that?” he posited. “Or would you prefer to bring in somebody from outside — a reformer — who would be able to make something like that happen?”

Right now, the only way the county can remove an elected sheriff is through a recall election.

The case for a public vote

There are just as many arguments on the commission to leave well enough alone, as every county in Washington elects their sheriff. If this change is made, King County voters will be the only ones who don’t have a say in the process.

The change would also deal out a good deal of power to the King County Executive who would be responsible for appointing a new sheriff, even if the candidate would still need approval from the King County Council.

“It’s probably the most controversial issue that we’ve been dealing with in terms of the number of factors that are being considered, and the division amongst the commission in terms of trying to reach a consensus,” said Nixon.

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The sheriff doesn’t make the law, as it’s essentially an administrative position. That being so, Nixon doesn’t understand why this is so controversial.

“I have seen some emails float around and Facebook posts from groups like Shift Washington, and there’s been some others that have started to raise this red flag about, ‘Oh, they’re going to try to take away our elected sheriff,'” he said.

Nixon is for appointing a Sheriff, but he recognizes he’s personally a little inconsistent when it comes to appointed versus elected officials in King County.

“I was the chair of the committee that ran a county initiative to make the director of elections a independent non-partisan elected office, because I felt it important that the Director of Elections be independent of the King County Executive,” he noted.

According to him, that initially stemmed from controversy in the 2004 gubernatorial election, where the King County Executive at the time was alleged to have instructed the Director of Elections – at the time an appointee of the Executive – to count a pile of ballots marked as invalid.

Shift Washington

Pepple describes the Shift Washington non-profit as loyal to the opposition of the dominant party.

“Shift Wa is an advocacy website that tried to point out the foibles of Washington State government from time to time,” he laid out.

He believes the move to make the Sheriff an appointed position is a blatant power grab, to consolidate power with the state’s majority party.

More than that, he doesn’t buy that we need to appoint a sheriff in order to open up the candidate pool.

“It doesn’t sound rational that among the millions of people living in King County, we don’t have somebody who would be a good sheriff,” said Pepple. “So to say that we need to go outside of King County to find a good sheriff is not a good rationale, to give the ability to the King County Executive to appoint that person.”

In late June, a poll was taken, and enough commissioners gave the thumbs up to continue discussing the issue. A draft ordinance to make the change has also been prepared, and commissioners will reconvene in September to decide whether they will recommend the change to the council for approval. After that, the issue then would go to voters in November.

For Nixon, he encourages people to weigh in before they make a final decision in September.

“It would be very useful to the commission to get more feedback pro or con,” he said.

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office declined to take a stance on the issue, stating that it “has not and will not weigh in on that recommendation, which was generated by the Charter Review commissioners.”

We also reached out to current King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and are awaiting a reply.

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