That question is on the ballot for Multnomah County voters. If passed, Measure 26-183 would replace Multnomah County’s elected sheriff with an appointed one.
Americans have been electing county sheriffs since the country was founded. And there have been few cases where anyone has tried to change that. Approximately 99 percent of the nation’s at least 3,000 county sheriffs are elected.
Andrew Ko, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said the tarnished history of the Multnomah County’s Sheriff Office makes the election process worth reassessing. “This is something ordinarily we wouldn’t necessarily get so involved in, but what we’ve seen is three sheriffs actually leave office under a cloud, all three of them,” Ko said.
Current Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese disagrees. He spoke against Measure 26-183 at a debate held by the Portland League of Women Voters last week. “I believe now more than ever, our top law enforcement official in Multnomah County should be an elected sheriff,” he said.
Reese, the former chief of the Portland Police Bureau, was chosen for his role by outgoing Sheriff Staton in August and approved by the county board. Now he’s on the ballot as candidate for sheriff.
Reese said the sheriff is already accountable. The County Board has oversight over the sheriff’s office and the final say over its budget. And the sheriff is required to have certification from the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
Like Ko, Reese cites history to make his argument. He uses the example of the late 1960s and 70s, when Multnomah County voters chose to replace the elected sheriff with an appointed one, the same decision they’re voting on today.
County Commissioner Judy Shiprack is the one who suggested that the county consider moving to an appointed sheriff in the first place. She said the complexity of the county’s corrections system is reason enough to reconsider the elections process.
“The public safety system in Multnomah County is the envy of the nation. But like the rest of the country, we struggle with jail,” said Shiprack.
Though the sheriff’s office provides law enforcement and sends deputies on patrol across the county, Shiprack says the sheriff is more of a warden than anything else. County jails employ 68 percent of the sheriff’s staff and eat up nearly half of Multnomah County’s discretionary spending.
Shiprack doesn’t think the measure will pass. It’s hard, she says, to ask voters to give up their right to vote on something. But she notes it has already started a conversation about the accountability of the sheriff’s office and how it can improve the county’s corrections system.
Shiprack hopes that conversation will continue regardless of the outcome in November.