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The ‘Sheriff’s Succession’ amendment

May 12, 2011
By Delegate John Doyle, The Doyle Report

Last week we discussed why we're having four elections for governor over the next 18 months. West Virginia is now (since New Jersey fixed the same problem a few years ago) the only state whose constitution requires a special election if a governor leaves office before the end of his or her term.

I said last week that I think we'll have to wait until 2014 to solve that problem and that I would tell you why this week. It has to do with something called the "sheriffs' succession" amendment.

Right now our state constitution permits county sheriffs to run for two consecutive terms. At the end of those two consecutive terms a sheriff may not run again for re-election. That person may run again after sitting out at least one term. This is the same rule that applies to governors of our state. It is similar to the rule applying to president of the United States except that the president is prohibited from ever running again after two consecutive terms.

This year we placed on the ballot in 2012 a constitutional amendment eliminating the "two-term" limit for sheriffs. It would permit any sheriff to run for unlimited consecutive terms. A proposed amendment to the West Virginia constitution must get a two-thirds majority in each house of the state legislature and be ratified by a majority of the voters at a general election or at a special election called for that purpose.

I think this is a bad idea, and I voted against it in the House of Delegates. A bit later I'll tell you why I think it's a bad idea, but that's not my central purpose here. My view of the merits (or lack thereof) of this idea is less important than the fact that I think it is doomed to big-time defeat at the polls in 2012.

Twice before in the last quarter century we've placed this identical amendment before the voters. Twice before they voted it down by an approximately 2-1 margin. I have no doubt that the voters will do the very same thing in 2012.

Quite often proposed constitutional amendments that are extremely unpopular with the voters result in the defeat of other proposals placed on the ballot at the same time. West Virginia's excessively long presidential year ballot causes even attentive voters to be less aware of some candidates as they need or wish to be. The more offices placed on the ballot at a given election, the less attention paid to each office.

Proposed constitutional amendments often get less attention than even the least interesting offices. If one amendment is seriously unpopular, some voters vote against all proposed amendments just to make sure they kill the one they don't like.

I think placing a sensible gubernatorial succession amendment on the ballot by itself would result in easy ratification. I think that would be true whether it's my idea of a lieutenant governor that draws no salary but serves in the governors' cabinet or any other idea that eliminates the special elections that are very costly ($14 million this year).

But I fear placing a proposed gubernatorial succession amendment on the ballot for ratification at the same election as the sheriffs' succession amendment would endanger the prospects of the gubernatorial succession amendment. So I think we must wait until 2014 to place before the voters a sensible gubernatorial succession proposal.

Why not place it on the ballot at a "special election called for that purpose?" I think that would look pretty silly. The whole idea of changing the constitution is to eliminate the expense of special elections in the future, yet we would be paying for just such a special election to fix the problem. Duh?

OK, so why do I think permitting sheriffs to serve unlimited terms is a bad idea? After all, I've generally opposed the idea of term limits for such offices as the U.S. congress, the state legislature and the county commission (although I have for many years believed that county commissioners' terms should be for four years, not six). Am I not being inconsistent?

As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

I believe term limits are appropriate for elective offices in which a large amount of power is placed in the hands of one person. President of the United States, governor of a state, mayor of a town or city in a "strong-mayor" system and county executive in a county executive-county council system all fit this category. While legislative bodies have much power, that power is diffused in varying degrees among their members.

West Virginia's sheriffs are medieval English "high-sheriffs." They are each the chief law enforcement officer and the chief tax collector of the county in which each serves. That amount of power concentrated in the hands of one person can lead to corruption.

I am not accusing a single sheriff in West Virginia today of corruption. Far from it. I think that's the beauty and a direct result of the two-term limit. As Lord Acton (less famously than Emerson) said, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

If the sheriffs of our state would agree to have a constitutional amendment placed on the ballot removing their tax collecting authority, I think it would pass. Each county commission could appoint a "county treasurer" and we would have in each county a sheriff who was strictly a law enforcement officer.

Should this be accomplished I would happily support sheriffs being given unlimited successive terms. But the separation of those two powers would have to happen first to gain my support. So far the West Virginia Sheriffs' Association refuses to consider such a proposal. Perhaps a third ignominious defeat of the "sheriffs' succession amendment" might change some minds.

 
 
 

 

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