Sheriff term limits up for vote again
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia voters will once again vote on repealing a long-standing constitutional limit on the number of terms county sheriffs can hold office during this November's general election.
It will be the fourth time in three decades voters have considered the issue. Voters resoundingly defeated the last three ballot attempts, which took place between 1982 and 1994.
The West Virginia Sheriffs Association lobbied to get the issue on placed on the ballot again this year. The Legislature overwhelmingly approved putting the issue to voters last year.
Aside from the governor and some city mayors, sheriffs are the only other elected officials in the state bound by term limits. It's a constitutional provision that dates back to the state's founding.
Sheriffs Association executive director Rudi Raynes-Kidder said it's time voters considered pulling the limit off the books.
"This law is outdated, that's all there is to it," Kidder said.
West Virginia, Indiana and New Mexico are the only three states in the country that limit sheriffs to two consecutive terms.
West Virginia sheriffs are considered "high sheriffs" because they serve as both the chief tax collector and chief law enforcement officer in their county.
The authors of the state Constitution included the term limit as a way to prevent abuse of power in what is seen as a very important and powerful county office.
Originally, the state limited sheriffs to one four-year term. To further limit power, the 1872 state constitution stated that even a sheriff's deputy could not be elected to succeed a particular sheriff.
Voters changed that section of the constitution in 1973 to allow sheriffs to serve two terms and remove the deputy provision. But sheriffs have continued to push for a complete repeal.
In 1982, 1986 and 1994, lawmakers have put the term limit repeal to voters. It was rejected soundly each time - the vote was 64 to 36 percent in 1982, 69 to 31 percent in 1986 and 66 to 34 percent in 1994.
Kidder said much has changed since the question was last put to voters.
She said sheriffs' behavior is under much more scrutiny now than in the past. Sheriffs must follow all provisions of civil service code and the county tax books are audited regularly to root out potential fraud.
"Your checks and balances are right there within the system," Kidder said. "You can't just be going around like the Sheriff of Nottingham taking from the citizens - now things like that are found out."
It still does not mean sheriffs are above reproach.
In August, U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston sentenced former Lincoln County Sheriff Jerry Bowman to one year and one day in federal prison for his role in a 2010 election fraud scheme.
Mason County Sheriff David Anthony resigned in March prior to pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of brandishing and firing a weapon near a dwelling and no contest to fraudulent schemes and embezzlement charges.
While preventing potential corruption has been main argument against repealing term limits, Kidder said these recent incidents showed the justice system is now able to root out that corruption.
She said good sheriffs who serve their counties well should not be forced out by term limits because bad ones like Bowman and Anthony abused their power.
"When you have instances like that where someone has done something they ought not, then the proper thing is done - they were removed," she said. "When people mess up, there are checks and balances in code and they have been proven to work just here in the past year."
But opponents of the repeal believe the idea of fostering perpetual incumbency in an office that controls the flow of tax revenues and works to control crime could be problematic.
They also say the public has already settled the argument three times already.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, was one of 18 members in the House of Delegates to vote against the resolution putting the repeal up for a vote.
"While I never have a problem with letting the people speak or give their opinion on things, I think they have already spoken on this," Armstead said.
"When the people have been given the opportunity to make their will known, and they have done so, and voted pretty overwhelmingly time and time again, I just don't see the need to have this on the ballot," he said.
Opposition to repealing term limits for sheriffs hasn't just come from Republicans like Armstead. Some Democrats, including Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, have spoken out against the repeal.
Like the writers of the state Constitution, opponents believe the sheriff's role as chief county tax collector and chief law enforcement officer.
"I don't know that you have another office on the county level that has such a wide range of responsibilities," Armstead said. "That was a wide justification of why they needed these term limits originally.
"I think it is best left as it is in the constitution and the term limits continue," he said.
But Kidder said the argument could be made that a county commissioner, with their control over a county budget, or an assessor, who has control over property tax valuations, also have very powerful roles that could be ripe for corruption.
Yet, those offices are not bound by term limits.
"If you're a county commissioner or assessor and you're doing a good job, you can keep signing up to run again," Kidder said. "But with our sheriffs, they don't even have the opportunity to put their name on the ballot.
"If you're going to have term limits then OK, but why is it just the sheriff - it's not fair," she said.
Armstead agreed that only limiting sheriffs and not any other county officials could appear unfair. But he said the solution was not to repeal those limits.
"I think we should look at term limits on other offices, and I'm certainly open to discussing that," he said. "But the question that's before us now is whether we repeal the term limits for sheriffs, not whether we should impose limits on other officials.
"I think, in that case, we should leave the term limits in place," he said.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.