By JAMES BELL
This November, Kansas voters will decide if the constitution should be amended to ensure sheriffs are elected to their positions.
If passed, little would change for residents of 104 out of 105 Kansas counties, but two western Kansas sheriffs believe the move will ensure citizens retain an important say in their area law enforcement.
“It's just a matter of just preserving people's rights to vote,” said Graham County Sheriff Cole Presley. “It doesn't give us any more authority, it doesn't give us any more power, the statutes are still statutes, and what laws we enforce are still subject to the legislature. So, we don't gain anything other than knowing we always have an office. “
“One of the unique things about the Sheriff, we are elected by the people,” said Ellis County Sheriff Scott Braun. “We answer to the people, to the public. Where if you're an appointed position … they answer to either a board or to maybe a city manager or something like that.”
He said that public accountability allows voters to decide if county law enforcement is serving the public interest.
“Every four years are people within Ellis County, and in Graham County, if they don't like you as the Sheriff, they have an opportunity to vote you out of there. And this constitutional bill will ensure that there's always an elected position of Sheriff within your county,” Braun said.
“We believe that the sheriff, the head elected law enforcement officials, should remain elected and should remain chosen by the people within the county,” Presley said. “By moving this from statute to the Constitution, it keeps the people's right to vote.”
Only Riley County does not currently elect a sheriff after consolidating the city and government law enforcement into one unit in 1974. The proposed amendment would not force the county to change the current system in place, but if it is decided in the future that a sheriff is again to be elected, the county would then be required to maintain that office.
Along with ensuring the office of sheriff remains and who holds that office remains the decision of the electorate, it would change how a Sheriff is removed from office.
“One of the changes that is within this is going to be the ouster process,” Braun said.
Currently, a County Attorney or the Kansas Attorney General can bring action to remove a sheriff. The amendment would allow the process to be undertaken by only the Attorney General or the voters.
“There have been some county attorneys that have sought that to remove a sheriff, maybe not for the right reasons. Maybe for the right reasons, but we believe that it may be better handled by the Attorney General's office who has a non-biased party that reviews all the facts of the case, so on that particular Sheriff, and then they could pursue the ouster process,” Braun said.
Presley said he believes keeping an ouster process in place is another important right of the people.
“It falls right in line with the whole concept of what we're doing and preserving the people's right to choose and empower their own leaders,” Presley said. “Recall is a big a big part of that and a sacred part of that, as far as we're concerned, it just needs to be done at the appropriate levels. And whether that be through recall or ouster, that's above peer-to-peer. That's our position on that.”
The measure was brought forward by the Kansas Sheriff’s Association and saw widespread support from the Republican-led Kansas legislature, brought to the ballot by a House vote in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot via a 91-31 vote and the Senate in a 39-1 vote.
“The Kansas Sheriff’s Association has put this forward, and we had a lot of conversation was legislators who were able to get it put onto the bill, and it was voted on,” Braun said. “And they agreed with us to move forward and let it up to the people to vote on that.”
Across the U.S., the various law enforcement structures and procedures vary, but most have the sheriff's office codified within their constitutions.
“That varies from terms of office to what their authorities are to what their primary roles are,” Presley said. “As an example ... I believe it's the state of Maryland, the sheriff doesn't have powers of arrest, he only operates the jail, and as an officer of the court, it falls to police departments and state police to carry out those functions. And in other states, the sheriff is the end all be all, and there isn't any other authority that exists there. So, it's different from one state to the next.”
“But the one thing that's consistent in most of those states is the local voting populace has always had a say in who that leader is,” he continued. “That’s the biggest connecting piece to all of them.”
“Out of all of the states, there are only 15 that are not within the constitution,” Braun said. “So, it's not like we're going out and in trying to create something new. It has been that way.”
For or against
As the effort to amend the constitution continues, the measure has seen some opposition that believes the way law enforcement is structured within a county should be a local decision.
Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, told the Kansas Reflector in April she was uneasy with placing ouster authority in the hands of the Attorney General rather than local prosecutors.
“This is a really big change to our governing system,” she said.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, also told the Reflector “local control” better reflected the will of the voters.
But many opinions for or against are seen as stemming from conversations in Johnson County as often-controversial Sheriff Calvin Hayden has promoted election fraud claims. His actions have been a part of local conversations to eliminate the position.
“I don’t generally support the entire state imposing their will on Johnson County,” Clayton said.
Financial savings has also historically been a part of the effort to consolidate law enforcement and eliminate the position.
“The interesting thing about Johnson County was they actually did remove three elected positions there,” Braun said. ”That was the County Clerk, the County Treasurer and Register of Deeds. They opted to keep the sheriff.”
But Braun and Presley believe it would only be a matter of time before the sheriff’s office was removed as well.
“We just see that as weakening the sheriff's office,” Presley said. “County government is not built to operate like a municipality, we're just not. And your elected leaders need that ability to make decisions and act decisively on a regular basis at any point in time without having to run something up the flagpole. It's just the way county government structure.”
“At least the western part of the state of Kansas, they want to voice,” Braun said. “Johnson County's got a lot of voices, I'm pretty sure there's a lot of people there. But I think everyone in Ellis County and Graham and Rooks and Rush, they want a voice in (who) they want to elect their sheriff.”
“We believe seeing this momentum moving on the eastern side of the state to try to change how government is structured is an indicator to us that slowly that trickles west as much as we might all not like what happens in Johnson County, eventually, it touches all of us out here in western Kansas,” Presley said. And so at some point, without this amendment, that's going to change in eastern Kansas, and that will slowly trickle this way into if we can put that put a barrier in place now. That keeps people's right to elect their sheriff in place. And then this is one less thing we have to worry about.”
Along with the arguments for how county’s structure law enforcement, financial concerns have been often cited as a reason to consolidate, but Braun said it might do more harm than good in the long run.
“The problem with that is you kind of lose that hierarchy,” he said. “So, if the, I'm just going to use the city of Hays, for example, the police department here, if they have an issue, a conflict within investigating a particular case, which does happen at times, then they can contact the sheriff's office, and the sheriff's office can investigate that.”
“And then if the sheriff has one, they go to the KBI. If the KBI has one, they may bring in the FBI, depending upon the case," he continued. "And so, these structures have been done in order to ensure that justice and the cases are being worked properly.”
And the top law enforcement officer in Kansas, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, has offered support for the amendment.
“The office of sheriff has deep historical roots, and the longstanding practice of election rather than appointment makes sheriffs uniquely accountable to the people,” Schmidt said following the legislative approval that moved the issue to November’s ballot. “I commend the large bipartisan majorities in the Legislature for giving Kansas voters the opportunity to enshrine the elected office of sheriff in our state constitution, and I look forward to supporting and campaigning for this amendment this fall.”
As political wrangling continues prior to the November 8 election, both area Sheriff’s hope the will of the people is reflected.
“If the right to choose your elected leadership is something that's important to you whether your daily life is impacted or not, this is an amendment that needs to be supported.” Presley said. “If most of us most days don't get up and worry about what it is our local governments are doing, and I would argue the reason for that is we've taken the time to choose who we want there, and put someone in place that we trust to conduct that business in a manner that says we don't have to worry about it, I pay my taxes, you do your job, leave me alone. That works great, especially out here in a rural area. But when that doesn't happen, when that trust is gone, and that trust is eroded, if you no longer have the ability to make that change, just simply because the state legislature wanted to do something different. You're kind of screwed.”
“We encourage everyone to vote and to vote any way you want,” Braun said.” But we're asking for your support to secure your voice for your Sheriff.”