By Vicki Smith
Keith Wilson Jr. is one of West Virginia’s youngest sheriffs at 39, but even if he wins a second term on Election Day, his career with the Wirt County department will end in four years.
Term limits in West Virginia’s Constitution would prevent him from trying again to keep the job he loves, at age 43.
Wilson, a Republican running against Democrat and former sheriff Andy Cheuvront, is part of a movement to change that. He’s posted signs across his tiny county of 6,000, urging people to vote “yes” on a constitutional amendment that would give voters the sole authority to decide whether a sheriff can serve more than two consecutive terms.
“If I’m not doing my job, the community is going to replace me,” Wilson said. “But if the sheriff they want in is term-limited, then they don’t get who they want.”
His opponent was elected in 2000 and again in 2004, but was then prevented from running again in 2008, when Wilson claimed the seat. Cheuvront is now trying to take it back.
The term-limits issue has gotten little attention, but the West Virginia Sheriffs Association says it’s sent out thousands of mailings, asking voters 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.
A “yes” vote would support removing that language.
“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,” said the association’s executive director, Rudi Raynes-Kidder. “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.
“We’re in great company,” Raynes-Kidder said. “We just don’t get the same benefits.”
Sheriffs, for example, don’t serve long enough to accrue retirement benefits. Nor do they serve long enough to work their way up the ladder at the National Sheriffs’ Association, where 12 years’ experience is required to serve on the board of directors.
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. Most people who run are older, nearing the end of their careers or already retired.
“Generally, not too many younger people do it,” he says, “because there’s no real future in it.”
State voters amended the constitution to allow sheriffs a second term in 1973. But voters have since rejected at least three attempts to allow additional terms — in 1982, 1986 and 1994.
Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, was among the few to oppose the constitutional amendment, though he admits it was a tough decision. Second-term Sheriff Vince Shambaugh of Morgan County is “a super guy,” Kump said, eminently qualified with a military background, a professional attitude and popularity among constituents.
“I agonized about that vote, I really did,” he said. “But the policy trumps the personal.”
Kump opposes the idea that anyone can make a career of elective office, and he 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 understands the arguments for change. But Kump says there are other ways to encourage people to run, such as increasing and guaranteeing pension benefits for sheriffs who complete the maximum eight years.
“I also would be willing to accept more than two terms of office for sheriffs,” Kump says, “but not an elimination of term limitations.”
The state association says past support for term limits stemmed from the fact that West Virginia has what’s called “a high sheriff,” in charge of collecting taxes while also the chief law enforcement officer.
People worried a rogue sheriff would charge and collect whatever he wanted, hire friends and family as deputies, and mistreat others at will. But times have changed.
“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.”
In Wirt County, Wilson says he’s heard similar concerns.
“There are so many people that are watching,” he said. “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.”
What is there, Wilson said, is a lot more work for a sheriff who wants it.
“That’s my biggest objection,” he said. “I’ve got so many things that are going to take years to finish. If the terms don’t get extended, I’m not going to be able to see those things through.”