ITHACA, NY – Yesterday, we presented the case against changing the Tompkins County Sheriff’s office to an appointed, rather than elected, position.

In this article, we’ll cover the other side of the argument. First, a point of clarification: as proposed by the Charter Review Committee, the law would not technically do away with the County Sheriff position.

Currently, the sheriff’s office does three things: law enforcement, jail management and serving of civil court documents. Under the proposed version of the law, the elected sheriff would maintain the latter two, while a new appointed position would take over the law enforcement portion. However, some legislators support a full changeover to an appointed position.

Here’s why the Legislature is leaning toward an appointed position:

1 – Qualifications should be the decider

Really, the arguments for appointing a sheriff all spiral off one central idea: that qualifications should be the deciding factor in who holds the office of sheriff.

The core of the argument is this: as an elected position, the office of sheriff can be won on the basis of stronger campaigning, fundraising, or overall popularity — regardless of actual job qualifications.

“Recognizing that law enforcement is more complicated than it used to be, that the armaments involved with both civilian and police having them, is more dangerous probably than it used to be, and there’s much more technical knowledge necessary to run law enforcement, it made sense to the charter committee to have a professional with experience and expertise do law enforcement,” Charter Review Committee chair Dooley Kiefer said during Tuesday’s legislature meeting.

Kiefer also said that people often simply vote along party lines, which may not be the best way to choose the person is most qualified for the job.

2 – Administrators vs. law enforcement officers

Another point that was discussed was the fact that the sheriff role is one that is as much an administrative role as a law enforcement one, something which many voters may not realize.

“We’ve had good administrators, we’ve had good cops. Some of them have merged and come together. By having a separate police department, we could appoint a police commissioner after a job search to find the best person. We wouldn’t have to hope that the election process gave us that rare individual who can do both,” said Legislature Chair Mike Lane, who also serves on the Charter Review Committee.

3 – Accountability and communication

While many argue that having elections for the office of sheriff are the greatest form of accountability, the legislators pushing for this change essentially argue the opposite. It’s just a question of who that position is accountable to: the voters or the legislature.

While the citizenry can vote out a bad sheriff after four years, someone in an appointed position could theoretically be more subject to greater oversight and public feedback — and be replaced quicker, in extreme cases.

Lane also said that with the prominence of issues of police brutality, community policing, and concerns over the militarization of police, he felt that having an appointed professional would help increase the legislature’s awareness of and ability to respond to public concerns.

He also noted that the City of Ithaca, the Town of Dryden, and the villages of Trumansburg, Cayuga Heights and Groton all have police departments with appointed heads that function well.

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Moving forward

On Tuesday, the Legislature deliberated for about two hours on the issue — and that was just about whether or not to have a public hearing on Aug. 16. After four votes on different approaches and amendments to the issue, the legislature could not reach a decision.

The Charter Review Committee, who has been heading up the discussions, was urging quick action so that the required public referendum vote could be part of the general election in November. They hoped that the increase voter turnout during general elections would provide a more representative vote on this important issue.

Some legislators, however, felt that the issue hadn’t been discussed carefully enough and that rushing into action was a dangerous idea, despite the intention.

Others disagreed with the recommendation put forth by the committee, which would split the sheriff’s office into two positions: an elected sheriff for handling the jail and civil matters, and an appointed police commissioner for law enforcement duties such as road patrols.

They argued for a change that would shift the entire position to an appointed one, and recommended that the public hearing proposed for Aug. 16 be made into two hearings, one for each version of the law.

Ultimately, a motion to table the issue, two motions to expand the hearing into two parts and a motion to stick with the original recommendation from the committee all failed. The issue will be explored further in Public Safety Committee and Government Operations Committee meetings before the next legislature meeting on Aug. 16.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.