TOPEKA, Kan. — Many Kansas legislators want to make sure that counties don’t change the longstanding tradition of electing sheriffs by enshrining the policy in the state constitution.
The Republican-controlled state House gave first-round approval Tuesday to a proposal to add language to the Kansas Constitution’s short article on county government to ensure that sheriffs are elected to four-year terms. The article now says only that the Legislature will create county offices “as may be necessary.”
Counties have been electing sheriffs since 1857, four years before Kansas was admitted to the Union, and all but one of the state’s 105 counties still do.
However, a commission created by state law for Johnson County, Kansas’ most populous county, reviewed a proposal to make the sheriff there appointed before deciding last month against any major changes to county government.
“The idea is that you have an individual who answers to the people directly,” said Rep. Eric Smith, a Burlington Republican and Coffey County undersheriff. “This is really important when you’re talking about a sheriff, who carries quite a bit of power in these counties.”
Legislators currently can change how sheriffs and other county officials are selected by passing a law by simple majorities in the House and Senate, if the governor also approves. Changing the state constitution would require the approval of two-thirds majorities in both chambers and a simple majority of voters in a statewide election.
House members expected to take a final vote Wednesday on the sheriffs proposal, which appears to have bipartisan support. If the GOP-controlled Senate also approves the measure, it would go on the ballot in November.
The Kansas Sheriffs Association backs the proposal, and about a dozen uniformed sheriffs or deputies watched the House’s debate.
“As long as there’s always a sheriff in each county, we believe that the people are more — better — represented in public safety,” Sheriff Cole Presley, of Graham County in northwestern Kansas, said afterward.
Only Riley County, in northeastern Kansas, doesn’t have an elected sheriff. Voters there consolidated the sheriff’s department with the Manhattan and Ogden city police departments in 1974, and the combined department’s director answers to a board led by local officials.
The proposed amendment would allow Riley County to continue that system, but if voters decided to return to an elected sheriff, the switch would be “irrevocable.”
“Each of our counties is unique and should be able to form their law enforcement according to their individual needs,” said Republican Rep. Michael Dodson, of Manhattan.
Had the Johnson County review commission pushed for the sheriff there to be appointed, county voters would have decided the issue.
“We are taking that decision away from our county voters,” Democratic Rep. JoElla Hoye, of Lenexa, said of the proposed constitutional change, which she opposes.
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