Letter to the Times: The ‘sheriff’ amendment — I’ll be voting no, but probably not why you think

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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On Nov. 8, Kansans will vote on whether to amend our state constitution to change the rules about how we elect and remove our sheriffs. 

Election of Sheriffs: The proposed amendment would require that, going forward, counties have, as their head of law enforcement, an elected sheriff. Currently, out of 105 counties in Kansas, 104 already elect their sheriffs.1

So, why the need now to constitutionally require 104 counties in Kansas to continue to elect their sheriffs? Because it is important that the highest county law enforcement official answer to the electorate. If one of the 104 counties decides to consolidate its city and county law enforcement, by statute, that law enforcement agency would not have an elected sheriff. Instead, a law enforcement agency board would appoint a police director. Under this scenario, the highest city and county law enforcement official is beholden to bureaucrats — not to voters.

That means if folks in power don’t like the elected sheriff, those folks can consolidate their city and county law enforcement, create a law enforcement agency board, and appoint a police director to their liking. Personally, I prefer democracy over bureaucracy, and I want my top law enforcement official to answer to me. So, I actually agree with constitutionally mandating the election of a sheriff. It’s the power of the removal of sheriffs with which I disagree.

Removal of a Sheriff: Under current Kansas law, an elected sheriff who is behaving badly can be removed from office in one of two ways: 1) by a recall of the voters or 2) by a quo warranto proceeding. In this circumstance, a quo warranto is merely a proceeding to remove a local official from office for misconduct, willful neglect, a demonstrated mental impairment, or committing a crime.

Voter Recall: The proposed constitutional amendment would not change the current rules by which a sheriff can be recalled by voters. The recall of a sheriff is initiated by a registered voter filing a petition with the county election office. So, if a citizen believes a sheriff has been up to no good, they can initiate a recall vote. The petition must have enough signatures — at least 40% of the votes cast in the last election for that office. If the petition is properly filed, an election is held, and if a majority (51%) votes to recall the sheriff, the sheriff is removed from office.2

Quo Warranto: Kansas state law currently provides that a sheriff can be ousted for engaging in misconduct — misconduct such as tampering with or hiding evidence in a criminal case. Under the proposed amendment, however, district attorneys would no longer have the power to initiate a quo warranto proceeding against a sheriff — only the state’s attorney general would have that power. Why is that important? 

If a county sheriff is engaging in misconduct, likely it will be the local district attorney who knows, because district attorneys and sheriffs naturally work together every day. Likely, the attorney general — who sits in Topeka most days — will not know if sheriff shenanigans are even happening. This also means that a sitting attorney general can refuse to investigate a sheriff for misconduct — a sheriff the attorney generally might like — and local district attorneys will have no legal mechanism to initiate an investigation. So, if the attorney general says “no investigation into a sheriff,” there will be no investigation into that sheriff. 

So, from a practical standpoint, passing this amendment would take power from local district attorneys to initiate a proceeding to ouster a naughty sheriff and would concentrate that power in one person — the state’s attorney general. 

Changing our state constitution to concentrate power in one office concerns me from a separation of powers standpoint. In addition, taking power away from locals — here local district attorneys — also troubles me. I’ll be voting no on the “sheriff” amendment. 

— Amii N. Castle (she/her), Lawrence

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  1. Riley County consolidated its city and county government in 1974, so Riley County has no elected sheriff. This constitutional amendment would not apply to Riley County because the county already consolidated.
  2. There are two minor errors in Ballotpedia: First, Ballotpedia states that voters can recall a sheriff by obtaining signatures from 40% of voters. However, as just stated above, the actual recall of a sheriff happens only after a majority of voters actually vote to recall. The 40% number only gets a petition filed. Second, the statute Ballotpedia cited in reference to a recall election is incorrect (Footnote 7 citing K.S.A. 25-4311). The statute Ballotpedia cited applies to the recall of state officials. K.S.A. 25-4318 through 25-4331 applies to county officials.
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