Legislature considers Sheriff appointment process

The Special Committee of the Tompkins County Legislature performing the once-a-decade review of the County Charter recently recommended adoption of a new Local Law that would remove law enforcement responsibilities from the elected office of County Sheriff and transfer them to an appointed leadership position under a new county Department of Police.
 
Any change in the position would be subject to a mandatory voter referendum, and would not take effect until after the end of the current elective term of Sheriff, as of Jan. 1, 2019.
 
Under the recommended Local Law, the elected position of Sheriff would continue to perform civil duties of the office that include the service of court documents and operation and management of the County Jail. An appointed Commissioner of Police would serve as the County’s chief law enforcement officer, leading a county Department of Police.
 
At the request of the committee, County Attorney Jonathan Wood presented the committee with two potential alternative approaches should a change be made. An alternative draft that would change the Office of Sheriff in total from an elected to an appointed position failed to win support by a tie vote of 2-2, Legislator Dan Klein and Committee Chair Dooley Kiefer in favor, and Legislator Peter Stein and Legislature Chair Mike Lane against.
 
The alternative to divide current position responsibilities, and redirect law enforcement functions to an appointed position was then recommended by a 3-1 margin (Ms. Kiefer dissenting).
 
New York State Sheriff’s Association executive director Peter Keough attended the committee meeting and spoke strongly in support of preserving the elected position of sheriff, an independent position that he maintained is historically and truly responsible to the public, and he said that changes to make the Sheriff an appointed position, as has happened in Westchester and Nassau Counties, are all about political control of the Office of Sheriff.
 
Noting again that the issue of appointed versus elected sheriff had been discussed repeatedly over the past 30 years as part of Charter review, Legislature Chair Lane observed that, over the years, the County’s experience regarding the position “has been mixed”, that the requirements of the position of sheriff have changed since the 1900s, and “if we don’t make some changes, it’s never going to happen.”
 
He noted an appointed law enforcement official would be consistent to other local law enforcement agencies and would be based on professional qualifications, similar to other county department heads.
 
Both Legislators Stein and Klein said that, considering its present-day technical responsibilities, the position should not be a political position. Though Mr. Stein and Mr. Lane voiced support of splitting civil and law enforcement functions, Mr. Klein said he sees the split of responsibilities just adding to the issue’s complexity.
 
The full Legislature will next be asked to authorize a public hearing on the proposed new Local Law, to be held at the earliest possible date, with the potential for scheduling a referendum, if the proposed law wins approval, as part of the November elections.