Should the King County sheriff be elected or appointed? | Roegner

The question for King County residents is more complicated than it appears.

In addition to candidate races this November, there will be policy questions for the public to approve or reject.

One that is returning to the ballot after 24 years is the question of whether the public should continue to elect the King County Sheriff, or whether the King County executive should appoint the sheriff, as was done prior to 1996.

It seems like a simple question, but it is more complicated than it appears — and the politics, while significant, are mostly behind the scenes. The revisit to the question was proposed by the Charter Review Commission, a 23-member citizen board chaired by former King County Executive Ron Sims and former King County Councilmember Louise Miller. Though they belong to different political parties, both are very knowledgable about how county government works and both know what goes on behind the scenes.

But a political twist was added by the King County Council in the form of a separate ballot issue that would give the council the power to define the sheriff’s duties.

I served on the Municipal League Board the last time this topic was debated in 1995-96, and public input was part of the process. I favored then and now the appointed sheriff because it can reduce the politics — and the sheriff is more likely to be a professional administrator, rather than a politician.

As originally conceived, the position was appointed by the executive and stayed that way until 1996. But a campaign that over-simplified the question “wouldn’t you rather choose the sheriff yourself” found appeal among voters.

Since then we have had good sheriffs and others who were only OK. Dave Reichert served from 1997-2004. Sue Rahr served from 2005-2012, Steve Strachan served in 2012, and John Urquhart served 2012-2018. Mitzi Johanknecht is the current sheriff and would be allowed to finish her term even if the voters choose to make the position appointed.

The change has made the sheriff’s office more political as all of the elected sheriffs have come from within the department and are subject to internal and external politics affecting decisions. If the position were appointed, the executive could do a national search to select a person with new ideas that fit current needs and provide a fresh look at the department. Second, if the position were appointed, the executive rather than the sheriff would become the bargaining agent with the sheriff’s deputies union. Public safety deputies negotiating directly with their boss when that position is elected can create significant problems particularly around discipline, work assignments and overtime, and it gives an oversized lever of power to the employees. The executive provides some distance and a buffer.

But the policy change that is most troubling is ceding power to create the job description to the county council without knowing what the details might be. After 11 years in upper management positions in county government, I would much prefer the public was voting on a finished product that they could read and question.

In light of current debate and how people of color have been treated by police over the years, I favor a complete review of future police services at the city, county and state level and believe there might be better ways of doing things. But I am reluctant to abdicate that responsibility to the county council and the political environment that can sometimes be part of their decision making process.

While the county council is non-partisan by a vote of the people, in actuality, there are frequently areas where politics do surface — and this is one. An example: when it came to placing the elected or appointed option on the ballot, the vote was 6-3 with Kathy Lambert, Pete von Reichbauer and Reagan Dunn voting no. On the other measure, it was 6-2, as Dunn was excused. All three no votes have been identified as Republicans and the six yes votes have all been identified as Democrats.

Supporting the change back to an appointed sheriff is a good idea. But far more public discussion needs to occur before I am comfortable with granting the county council a blank check on the functions within the King County Sheriff’s Office, and the public should demand the right of approval on the final product. My advice is to vote yes on making the position appointed and vote no on the delegation of power to the council.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact