Kansas House advances constitutional amendment requiring elected sheriffs

By: - February 22, 2022 4:02 pm

Rep. Eric Smith, a Burlington Republican and deputy sheriff for Coffee County, asked lawmakers to consider the implications of a board-controlled law enforcement leader. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Rep. Eric Smith encouraged House members Tuesday to support a constitutional amendment requiring counties to elect sheriffs, rather than risk the possibility of a county commission gaining authority to appoint the position.

Smith, a Republican from Burlington who said his “real job” as a deputy sheriff for Coffee County supports his political hobby, joined other supporters of the proposal in arguing it is important to shield top law enforcement officers from the scrutiny of other elected officials.

“I just want want you to consider the idea that when you have an elected sheriff out there, that individual serves you and serves your constituents as an individual who has to uphold those values that they were elected on, and you can hold them accountable for that,” Smith said.

The House advanced the constitutional amendment on a voice vote. If two-thirds of the members of both the House and Senate approve the resolution, voters will get to decide the issue in November. In addition to requiring counties to elect sheriffs every four years, the amendment specifies that a sheriff can only be removed from office by a recall vote or legal action by the attorney general.

Supporters of the amendment, including Rep. John Resman, a retired deputy sheriff and Republican from Olathe, raised concerns about discussions by the Johnson County Charter Commission as the basis for needing the amendment. Opponents included a Republican and Democratic representative from Riley County, which is served by a countywide police department.

Resman said he was personally involved in investigations in Johnson County that involved city or county government officials who conducted criminal activity and were charged with crimes.

“I think this is extremely important that the people realize or understand that the sheriff has the ultimate authority for investigating these types of crimes,” Resman said. “And there won’t be any interference by bureaucrats or by the county commissioners.”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, said she favored “local control” and a community’s ability to determine the system that works best.

“I don’t generally support the entire state imposing their will on Johnson County,” Clayton said.

Rep. Ken Collins, R-Mulberry, speaking in favor of the elected sheriff requirement, said the position of county sheriff holds a “special place” in the way of life for many Kansans.

“I could go back to my home district and ask someone who their state representative is, and they might know that it’s me,” Collins said. “I could ask someone to name their county commissioners, their mayor or their city officials, and they might or might not know. But ask them to name their sheriff, and I would venture to guess that a majority would give you the correct answer without having to think about it.”

Currently, Riley County is the lone outlier among the state’s 105 counties. The other 104 have a sheriff who is elected.

Rep. Michael Dodson, R-Manhattan, said the county’s unique arrangement saves taxpayers money. There is one jail, one training complex, one emergency response team, one set of mental health specialists, and consolidated dispatch. The police force can send an officer off to a six-month training course because others are available to cover necessary shifts.

Every county should be able to choose the system that works best, Dodson said.

“If a county wishes to have a sheriff, that’s a great choice,” Dodson said. “Likewise, if a county wishes to consolidate, they should be able to do that.”

Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, also opposed the amendment.

Rep. Tatum Lee, R-Ness City, thanked the law enforcement officers who watched the debate from the public gallery. Addressing the gallery violates chamber rules.

“The power should always be with the people. Always, always be with the people,” Lee said. “And the fact that we would try to give some committee in some county board somewhere control of that is just crazy to me.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.

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