Updated: September 14, 2020 11:06 PM
Created: September 14, 2020 10:52 PM
Ramsey County officials are looking into whether the position of sheriff should be elected or appointed. The County Charter Commission discussed the agenda item at its Monday meeting.
There are thousands of sheriffs in the U.S., and the vast majority are elected. If approved by voters through a charter amendment, Ramsey County would be the only county in Minnesota to appoint their sheriff.
"We are the only home rule charter, no other county can have this discussion," said Joe Murphy, the Charter Commission chair.
According to the Charter Commission clerk, they started looking at the possibility in 2019 amidst a review of each section of the charter.
In June, however, the County Board of Commissioners members announced their intent to review whether the position should be elected or appointed.
Board Chair Toni Carter included it as one of three action items in response to a discrimination complaint filed by several corrections officers of color who said they were not allowed to guard former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin while he was at the Ramsey County jail.
Commissioner Carter wrote, "A more significant structural change must be considered. The County Board will therefore be evaluating our Home Rule Charter and pertinent legislative statute to identify the appropriate process by which the community can reevaluate whether an elected or appointed Sheriff is most appropriate in providing transparent, accountable, effective and equitable public safety services across Ramsey County."
Board members further clarified at a July meeting that the position's review extends beyond a single incident and is an effort to create transparency, accountability, and trust.
"We have 500 employees and on that given day, under tremendous amount of stress, one of them made a very serious mistake," said Sheriff Bob Fletcher, about the May 29 incident. "That person has been disciplined and demoted but that happens in law enforcement circles. No one was more upset about that than me but to be frank it's just an excuse. The County Board had been looking for this opportunity to make the job appointed for some time."
Fletcher called it "political" and voiced concerns that it's part of an effort to defund the police.
"If you have an appointed sheriff, you can control the budget and you can defund the police far easier," he said. "In regards to county boards and sheriffs, the check and balance of having an elected sheriff that is not appointed by the county board is critical. You want to have those checks and balances in government anywhere that you can."
He said there is room for change within his office. Fletcher pointed to his virtual Facebook Live ride-alongs, which started in July, as one effort to improve transparency.
The Charter Commission discussed the position briefly on Monday night before tabling the item until its October meeting.
The issue has gone before the Commission in the past. In 2008, members voted eight to eight on it so it did not move forward. Fletcher was in office at the time of the vote.
Chair Murphy acknowledged there seems to be a pattern. Commission Member Bethany Winkels also voiced concern about that and raised an issue with a Facebook post by Sheriff Fletcher.
The sheriff posted about the meeting, "The Ramsey County Charter Commission Chair has placed a proposal on the upcoming agenda to convert the elected Sheriff's Office to an appointment by the Ramsey County Board. There are over 3000 Sheriffs in the United States - nearly all of which are elected by the public."
He urged supporters to write their support to the Charter Commission. According to the clerk, they received more than 200 e-mails.
"There was no one who presented an opposition statement because there was nothing to oppose, we were talking about understanding our roles better, understanding the charter better," she said. "He, as opposed to trying to understand information, he chose to paint us as people who were trying to undermine whether or not he would be elected or appointed […] What recourse do we have as a commission to hold him accountable for organizing misinformation on social media?"
Commissioner Robert Lynn Humphrey pushed back, arguing the public holds the sheriff accountable every four years. He voiced concerns about changing how the sheriff is selected.
"I really have a problem. We would be the only, does any county have an appointed sheriff," he asked.
Murphy replied, "The only reason we can talk about it is we're a home rule charter."
Humphrey said, "That's great and I think that's a beautiful thing, but at the same time I think we have 200 plus people who've weighed in and say the sheriff should be elected."
Fletcher said he has not heard from Charter Commission members or Board of Commissioners members about the issue. He did not speak at Monday's meeting.
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