It is time to consider amending the state Constitution so that sheriffs are appointed solely based on their qualifications for the job. Ever since statehood in 1850, California's sheriffs have been elected in countywide votes. But law enforcement has changed considerably since the days our counties were patrolled by a few Stetson-clad men on horseback.
Instead, sheriffs should be selected after a professional search. Incumbents should be held accountable to a review board and to elected officials, and should be limited to a fixed number of years in office.
Orange County supervisors this month appointed a sheriff who not only is the first woman to lead the department but an outsider to the county's power structure. The selection of Sandra Hutchens, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's division chief, came after an open application process, in which any peace officer could apply, and an exhaustive national search. Supervisors carefully reviewed candidate backgrounds and grilled them in interviews. This is the way one expects that the manager of a large, highly specialized agency would be chosen.
But appointing a sheriff is an anomaly. The Orange County supervisors were able to appoint Hutchens only because her predecessor, Sheriff Michael S. Carona, resigned earlier this year after he was indicted on federal corruption charges. The county needed someone to fill out his term, which ends in 2010.
The advantage of appointing a sheriff is that officials can choose the best and the brightest after a stringent vetting process for what is supposed to be a nonpolitical law enforcement agency. In contrast, elections usually elevate the best connected and the best fundraisers.
In Orange County, Carona managed to win reelection in 2006 despite an emerging scandal that had already led to the indictment of his top assistant. Carona raised more than $600,000 and vastly outspent his opponents. Or consider Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's first election win in 1998. On election day, the incumbent sheriff whom Baca was challenging had been dead five days -- and yet his name on the ballot still garnered 39% of the vote.
Once elected, sheriffs go on to enjoy some of the best job security around, with no term limits and no oversight committee to evaluate job performance. In Los Angeles County, the power of incumbency is so great that in 75 years, only four men have held the office.
The notion of electing sheriffs may have made sense back when California was still part of the Western frontier and populations in the biggest counties numbered only in the thousands. But a modern law enforcement agency, with its morass of technical and legal knowledge requirements, multimillion-dollar budgets and thousands of employees, needs a professional manager.
It is time for sheriffs to be selected for their law enforcement knowledge, employee management skills and ability to manage a large budget -- not on their ability to work the county's political system and endear themselves to wealthy donors.
Steve Remige is president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.