Elected or appointed? King County weighs sheriff options

Voters could be asked to decide in November.

Better representation for people living in unincorporated King County — and greater accountability to the King County Council and Executive — are key issues being discussed as officials decide whether to ask voters if the county sheriff should be elected or appointed.

The King C0unty Sheriff is currently elected by all voters in the county. The department provides some services like marine patrol and search and rescue operations countywide, and some cities contract with the sheriff’s office for police services. But for people living in unincorporated parts of the county, the sheriff’s office is their local police department.

Changing the sheriff from an elected to an appointed position was recommended by the King County Charter Review Commission. Kinnon Williams served as a commissioner, and said appointing a sheriff increases representation for people in unincorporated areas who are directly served by the department.

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said it also removes politics from policing.

“We would have a sheriff who would come from a pool of folks beyond just those who are willing to stand for election,” he said at a June 13 King County Committee of the Whole meeting.

Dembowski said moving to an appointed position could reduce tension in the sheriff’s office, and prevent political factions from forming.

But Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer was skeptical of that claim, and of the idea that putting the sheriff under the control of the county council and executive would make the position less political. He said he would vote against recommending the change.

Kathy Lambert, who represents a largely rural district in east King County, also expressed reservations, saying most constituents she had talked with were not in favor of the transition.

“They do not want to lose their right to vote for the sheriff,” she said.

The sheriff’s position was an elected one for decades until the 1960s, when scandals and charges of corruption led voters in the county to enact a Home Rule charter, changing the position to an appointed one. This remained until 1996, when voters in the county approved another charter amendment to make the sheriff an elected official.

The King County Sheriff’s Office has more than 1,000 employees. With an elected sheriff at its head, the office has broad authority to enact internal policies with limited oversight from the county council or executive.

Increasing control of the county’s law enforcement was one of the main concerns for Councilmember Girmay Zahilay. An elected sheriff, like other elected officials, can usually only be removed through an election or recall vote.

“If somebody’s appointed, you just go through the executive and the council and you can remove someone,” he said.

Zahilay said he was concerned that an elected sheriff, especially one who comes from within the department, would not be able to make sweeping policy changes. Civilian elected officials are better positioned to develop and implement broad changes, he said.

In previous reporting, charter review commission member Toby Nixon said every sheriff that has been elected since 1996 has come from within the department.

“It’s hard to imagine if it’s always going to be an insider of the sheriff’s office who gets elected, how would you ever be able to implement any kind of fundamental cultural change in the office,” Nixon said in February.

Moving to an appointed sheriff would make King County unique in Washington state. All other counties run elections for their top law enforcement position.

The Washington State Sheriff’s Association has opposed the proposal, penning a letter in March 2019 on it.

“Our members feel very strongly that the direct accountability and responsiveness to voters is a critical aspect of the office of sheriff,” the letter states.

A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for the July 21 King County Council meeting. If approved by the council, the proposal will be sent to voters in November.


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