Tompkins sheriff election vs. appointment discussion tabled — for now

The Tompkins County Legislature chambers Tuesday night (Photo: Michael Smith/Ithaca Voice)

The Tompkins County Legislature chambers earlier this month (Photo: Michael Smith/Ithaca Voice)

ITHACA, N.Y. — Earlier this month, the Tompkins County legislature deadlocked and a motion to set a public hearing about the issue of changing the sheriff position from an elected one to an appointed one failed to get off the ground.

A resolution to schedule another public hearing on the issue was on the agenda for the Aug. 16 meeting. This one also failed to garner enough support. Instead, a motion to table the discussion was eventually put forth and passed, 9-5.

Importantly, tabling the issue at this point means that there is no way that the the public referendum required to change the sheriff position will be part of the general election on Nov. 8.

Legislators who had been in favor of moving ahead with the change had said that this year's general election was a perfect opportunity to consider this change. They said it would guarantee a high voter turnout since so many more people come out to vote for president.

The issue is likely to be brought up again, as some legislators who were hesitant to move forward with the idea at this time said they did support the ultimate goal of making the sheriff position an appointed one. However, they felt that things had been moving too quickly and wanted to continue to hear more from the public before moving forward.

Others stated that they wanted to see the results of the police consolidation study as a consolidation would add an additional dimension to the discussion.

Public opinion

In spite of the fact that a public hearing was never schedule, around nine people came to the Aug. 16 meeting to speak their minds on the issue. Eight of those speaking were against the proposed measure.

One man, Herman Sherwodd-Sitts, came all the way from the city of Norwich in Chenango County. He said that while this wasn't his county, he came to speak on the issue because voting for the county sheriff is a right that should not be stripped from the populace.

Several others spoke, hitting on similar points. Bonnie Scutt of Dryden summed up much of the sentiment, saying, "You never ever take the right to vote from an American."

Scutt and others also expressed concerns about the position becoming a political one. The worry is that an appointed sheriff who was friendly with the legislators would be more inclined to support law changes, or may not be held accountable in the same way.

Many people stated that the ability to vote out a sheriff who performed poorly was the primary way of citizens to hold a sheriff accountable. Removing the ability to vote stripped them of that power, they argued.

Rocco Lucente of Ulysses also presented a petition signed by 340 people, as well as 125 written comments opposing the change. Lucente brought up another common sentiment -- that by making this move, the legislators were essentially saying the voters weren't smart enough to make the right decision.

One woman, Deborah Dawson of Lansing, did speak in favor of appointing the sheriff position. Dawson, who said she had 30 years of experience dealing with law enforcement agencies, said that she had seen very few ways that an elected law enforcement head was actually more accountable to the people than an appointed one.

She pointed out that after the Hornbrook Road standoff, many people came to the legislature to complain about how the police handled that situation -- but the legislature had absolutely no power to do anything about it.

"I think the whole thrust of this proposal is to make the sheriff more accountable," Dawson said. "I think there are two sides to this. You're all focused on, 'my vote, my vote, my vote.' I understand that. I'm focused on having a sheriff that's accountable more often than once every four years."

Legislators discuss

In introducing the new resolution, Legislator Dan Klein took pains to clarify several important facts:

  • If the legislature were to pass the law, it would not be "stripping people of their right to vote." The law could only be put in place by public referendum, so ultimately the public would have to vote in favor of moving the sheriff position to an appointed one.
  • The proposed change has nothing to do with trying to oust current Sheriff Ken Lansing, as Lansing has already said he is not running for the next election.
  • He challenged the idea that there was a hard-and-fast rule about what positions had to be elected rather than appointed, pointing out that many counties have elections for positions such as bookkeeper or coroner, while many others don't
  • He noted that in New York state, there are 460 law enforcement agencies with appointed heads (such as the Ithaca Police Department) -- only 54 have an elected head

As the legislators continued to discuss the issue, it was clear that there were a number of different viewpoints.

Legislator Anna Kelles said she felt that having a public hearing would help keep the idea fresh in people's minds and prompt action. Others, such as Legislator Martha Robertson argued that a public hearing would set the wheels in motion toward a vote, and that was something she and several others were not comfortable doing.

Other legislators debated the exact approach the county had outlined for the change. Some felt that an appointed sheriff should report directly to the legislature in the same way that the County Administrator or County Attorney do. It was argued that having regular interface with the legislature and the public would boost communication and accountability.

Others felt that the legislators had no real frame of reference to evaluate law enforcement issues, and felt it should be its own entity.

Legislator Mike Sigler remained steadfastly opposed to the whole idea, pointing out that the sheriff isn't just "another department head." Sigler argued that since the sheriff is authorized to arrest and potentially even kill people, it's unrealistic to compare it to other appointed positions.

Sigler also disagreed with the comparison of the sheriff position to other law enforcement agencies with appointed heads. He pointed out that in most situations with an appointed head, there was an executive, such as a mayor, who was responsible for the appointment. He felt that the legislature, as a lawmaking body, should not be able to make such appointments.