By Mannix Porterfield
No sooner has a sheriff pinned on a badge in West Virginia than it’s time to vacate the office, the luster on the shield hardly darkened before the two-term limit has been exhausted.
Come Tuesday, however, voters can decide if they want to let the state join 47 other states and abandon that limit by allowing sheriffs to serve as many terms as they can secure in elections.
The constitutional amendment would put sheriffs on the same level as other county and most statewide public servants and has been a key issue this election season with the West Virginia Sheriffs Association.
A sheriff may serve two full terms, take a hiatus, then come back four years later and put matters again before the voters, just as Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, did in his law enforcement career. Laird wound up serving four terms in his home county.
“The only people that have limits are the governor and the sheriffs,” says Rudi Anne Kidder, executive director of the sheriffs association.
Critics lament the fact that the amendment would open the door for another potential wave of “career politicians,” but Kidder counters this by pointing out that any county official can land a political job for life.
“You rule out a lot of people running,” she says.
Once a sheriff completes two terms, says Kidder, the officer must wait four years before trying again, and many find themselves in a like predicament.
“Too young to retire but a little too old to return to the regular police work,” she said.
“It kind of cuts down the options for good candidates for sheriff.”
Besides, the argument against some folks making a life out of a political plum is one that Kidder shares — to some degree.
“I’m not in favor of career politicians, either,” she said.
“But you need to put county officials on an even playing field.”
Another criticism leveled by some is that a long-serving sheriff would wield too much power since that office is “the most powerful” at the level of county government.
“You’ve got the prosecutor who is the top legal person in the county, and the commission controls the entire budget,” Kidder said.
“The thing that is kind of unfair about it (existing limit) is you could have an assessor that doesn’t even do a good job but keeps getting back in there. The sheriff doesn’t even have that choice. We have great sheriffs out there.”
Moreover, the sheriff isn’t merely a law enforcement chief with a badge pinned to the uniform, but must also serve as the head tax collector, Kidder emphasized.
“It takes a while to get adapted to it, and once you finally do and make the office yours and understand the system, you’ve got to go,” Kidder said.
Kidder said she hasn’t encountered any organized opposition to the amendment and when individuals voice concerns over multiple, uninterrupted terms for sheriffs, she has been able to make them see things her way.
“Some people think a sheriff just sits behind a desk all day,” she said.
“No, they don’t. Honestly, a majority of our sheriffs in West Virginia are out there working on the road.”
There is another dimension to the issue Kidder raised — the fact that sheriffs, by and large, with only rare exception, have advanced through the law enforcement ranks before seeking the office.
Only two other states forbid their sheriffs from serving multiple terms — Indiana and New Mexico.
“Our guys have gone to the National Sheriffs Association, but they can’t even become very active,” Kidder said.
“By the time they get on the board at the national level, they have to go and can’t serve there. It just cuts down on so many opportunities. It’s such a shame. You get really good sheriffs who are active in the Sheriffs Association and then, bam, they’re gone.”
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