State voters reject repeal of sheriff term limits again
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A law limiting sheriffs to only two consecutive terms in office will remain on the books after West Virginia voters rejected lifting the term limits for the fourth time.
The margin by which the measure was defeated was smaller than in years past. That was encouraging to a disappointed Rudi Raynes Kidder, executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association.
With 95 percent of the state's 1,842 precincts reporting, 53 percent of voters were against repealing the amendment while 47 percent voted to repeal it, according to results posted on MetroNews' website.
"This was the best it's ever done and the closest it's ever been," Kidder said Tuesday night. "It made a very good showing and it shows, I think, that people do trust their sheriffs and that they have good approval ratings across the state." This was the fourth time in 30 years that the issue was on the ballot. It was resoundingly defeated on the last three attempts, all of which took place between 1982 and 1994.
Voters defeated the measure in 1982, 1986, and 1994. The vote was 64 to 36 percent in 1982, 69 to 31 percent in 1986 and 66 to 34 percent in 1994.
The Sheriff's Association lobbied hard to get the issue on the ballot again this year, Kidder said. The Legislature approved the matter, turning the matter over to voters.
Kidder called the fact that sheriffs have limits to their terms "outdated" and said it was time to pull it from the books. She argued sheriffs who have done a good job should have the option to continue running for the office.
She expected the repeal would do well in counties where residents were pleased with their sheriffs. That wasn't the case everywhere.
Kidder pointed to Kanawha County, where voters seemed pleased with Sheriff Mike Rutherford, who is finishing his second term and being succeeded by his younger brother John Rutherford. But 23,520 Kanawha voters favored of the repeal, while 25,467 voters did not. In Wood County, 19,931 votes were cast against repealing the amendment and 12,410 votes were cast in favor of a repeal.
"Wood County was very surprising because (Sheriff Jeff) Sandy got beat there by sheriff from the past who is coming in on his fourth term," Kidder said. Wood County residents voted to unseat Sheriff Jeff Sandy, Democrat, in favor of Ken Merritt, a Republican, who will be starting his fourth term as Wood County Sheriff in January. Merritt served three terms from 1993 to 1997, 1997 to 2001 and 2005 to 2009.
Also surprising she said was Mason County where 4,582 votes were cast for the repeal and 4,466 votes were cast against it. Mason County voters saw their sheriff David Anthony resign from office amid a fraud and embezzlement scandal earlier this year.
"That was very surprising for us," Kidder said of the Mason County results.
West Virginia, Indiana and New Mexico are the only states that limit sheriffs' terms.
Only a handful of positions have term limits in West Virginia, including sheriff, governor and a few city mayors. West Virginia's sheriffs serve as the chief law enforcement officer and chief tax collector for their county.
"If prosecutors, commissioners, assessors, clerks, etc., can run for multiple terms when they do a good job in office, why are sheriffs not given the same opportunity?" Kidder said in an email message. "Shouldn't citizens be trusted to decide whether the sheriff has met the public's expectations and is deserving of additional terms in office?"
Originally the state limited sheriffs to one four-year term and prohibited sheriff's deputies from succeeding a sheriff. Voters removed the deputy provision and allowed sheriffs to serve two terms in 1973.
Sheriffs have continued to push for a full repeal.
Kidder said sheriffs are under more scrutiny now than when the state constitution was written.
Preventing corruption was the main argument against repealing term limits but Kidder said recent incidents, such as the election fraud scheme that sent Lincoln Sheriff Jerry Bowman to federal prison and the embezzlement scheme that cost Mason Sheriff David Anthony his job, showed the justice system now is able to deal with corruption.
Sheriffs have to follow the civil service code and the county tax books are subject to regular audits to prevent possible fraud. Legislators who voted against putting the issue on the ballot on both sides of the aisle argued the issue had been voted on enough.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, argued the issue already had been put to a vote multiple times.
"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 in October. "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." Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, told the Daily Mail in October he thought it was best to leave the amendment as it was and to let the term limits continue.
Kidder said the sheriff's association received several hundred letters in support of removing the amendment.
"A lot of people have said it was so soundly defeated in the past but I think it shows we knew people were open to the idea," Kidder said. "We're still proud of how it turned out."
Kidder said a number of new sheriffs have been elected and that they would discuss whether they would try again.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4850.