A voter deposits a ballot into a Multnomah County drop box in this 2008 file photo. The county's voters will decide this election whether or not to keep electing sheriffs after a string of scandals have rocked the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.

A voter deposits a ballot into a Multnomah County drop box in this 2008 file photo. The county’s voters will decide this election whether or not to keep electing sheriffs after a string of scandals have rocked the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

File Photo/OPB

Multnomah County’s sheriff has been elected since the county incorporated in 1854. But years of scandal in the county sheriff’s office have some questioning whether that system is worth preserving.  

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.

Sheriffs Bernie Giusto, Bob Skipper, and Dan Staton all stepped down midterm amid controversy in the past decade. Ko says these examples prove that elections every four years aren’t enough to hold the sheriff accountable. He thinks Multnomah County should replace its elected sheriff with one appointed by the County Board of Commissioners. Then the Board would have recourse if the sheriff wasn’t doing their job.

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.

“We’ve tried this appointment once before. 1967 to 1978, 11 and a half years, we had an appointed sheriff,” he said. “We had six appointed sheriffs. Can you imagine the turmoil that caused in our large public safety system? It was horrific, and we went back to, wisely, an elected sheriff.”

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.

“That is in part represented by the overtime expenses generated by suicide watch, a 24/7, one-on-one procedure, which is just that, a procedure rather than a medical intervention,” Shiprack said. “And by the racial and ethnic disparities of the entire public safety continuum reflected by disproportionate use of force against inmates of color in our jails.”

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.