The Times West Virginian

November 14, 2012

In future election, give amendment on term limits for sheriffs full attention

Times West Virginian

— In a year where West Virginia voters went to the polls to make their choices for president, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, governor and other state officials, and local contests, one issue received little attention during the 2012 political season.

A constitutional amendment was on the ballot that would have given voters the sole authority to decide whether a sheriff can serve more than two consecutive terms.

The West Virginia Sheriffs Association strongly supported the measure to repeal the current term limits for the state’s 55 sheriffs. The Constitution currently forces them to sit out one term after serving two consecutive four-year terms. Only two other states, Indiana and New Mexico, have similar restrictions.

State voters amended the constitution to allow sheriffs a second term in 1973. Attempts to remove term limits were decisively defeated in 1982, 1986 and 1994.

Last week, the attempt failed again, but it was close — about 48 percent for the amendment and 52 percent against.

“If you’re an assessor, a prosecutor or any county officeholder, you at least have the option to put your name on the ballot for re-election. Sheriffs don’t have that opportunity,” Rudi Raynes-Kidder, the association’s executive director, told The Associated Press before the election. “We want to give the power back to the voters and basically empower them to make these decisions for themselves.”

In West Virginia, only the governor is subject to a similar term limit.

There is a reason, the state association admits, for past voter support for term limits. West Virginia sheriffs are in charge of collecting taxes while also performing law-enforcement duties.

As the AP pointed out, people worried a rogue sheriff would charge and collect whatever he wanted, hire friends and family, and mistreat others.

That’s no longer the case.

“Now, it’s audited like any other business,” Raynes-Kidder said, “and we have a civil service code so you can’t mistreat your officers. There are internal powers now that basically police the system.”

Wirt County Sheriff Keith Wilson Sr. said that “we are so closely watched by the state auditor that they can tell us when we’re off the books by 40 cents. The ‘powerful’ part of it is just not there.”

State Sen. Bill Laird, a Democrat and former Fayette County sheriff who sponsored the amendment, calls term limits a disincentive for young, qualified law-enforcement officers who might want the job.

On the other side are people such as Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, who admits it was a tough decision to oppose the amendment but supports term limits for everyone, including state legislators.

“I just have a deep philosophical problem with any elected official, at any level of government, being allowed to run for unlimited terms,” he said.

He prefers such incentives as increasing and guaranteeing pension benefits for sheriffs who complete eight years.

“I also would be willing to accept more than two terms of office for sheriffs,” Kump said, “but not an elimination of term limitations.”

Raynes-Kidder, in the aftermath of last week’s election, believes some voters were confused by the issue.

“People said the language was confusing, and I agree,” she told Mannix Porterfield of The Register-Herald in Beckley. “I think it was, too.

“I had to read it twice before I knew what I was voting for. What about someone who never heard it before? In one particular message I got from someone who had talked to someone who went to the polls and didn’t know how to vote, a poll worker told them incorrectly, that if you voted ‘no,’ you were for it. The poll workers were telling them the wrong thing.”

There has been no decision made about whether to bring the issue before the voters again in 2014 or later, although Raynes-Kidder said that “I don’t see why we wouldn’t pursue it in the future.”

We agree. Let the opposing sides make their best case to the voters in a year where the matter can receive the attention it deserves.