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Credit: King County Sheriff's Office

Should the King County sheriff be appointed or elected? Voters will decide

Charter amendments tend to be obscure, and they can take voters by surprise. That’s why King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski says he’s spending his own money to campaign for them this fall.

Dembowski is the single biggest contributor to the Charter for Justice campaign committee. He’s given $2,500. So far the money is going for a website supporting the passage of seven amendments to the charter that governs King County.

The highest profile amendments relate to law enforcement: one (Amendment Number Five) would make the sheriff an appointed position rather than an elected one. Another (Amendment Number Six) would allow the council to restructure or reduce the duties of the sheriff’s office.

“This is not anything against the police, this is about good governance,” Dembowski said. “And I felt a personal obligation to do what I could to be able to have a place for voters to come to learn more if they want to about the measures. So that’s why I wrote a check and frankly I may write another one.”

Dembowski said the county's Charter Review Commission supported making the sheriff’s position appointed, as it was before the 1990s. He said it would allow the county to do a nationwide search and draw on a broader pool of candidates.

“We also believe it provides for a greater ability to integrate law enforcement with other county services like our human services function,” he said. “I think we’ve seen a great movement in our country and locally to deliver the right kind of response to the crisis that is needing help.”

Dembowski said the idea of responding to emergencies with people other than sworn officers is also behind the proposed amendment to restructure the sheriff’s office, although he said, “there’s no specific proposal at this time. But there’s language in the charter that could present a barrier from us shifting some duties to a more appropriate public health or human services response to a crisis.”

An earlier version of that proposed amendment even removed barriers to "abolishing" the Sheriff’s Office, but Dembowski says council members on both sides of the issue agreed that word should be removed. He said the version going to voters “leaves in language that says you can’t abolish [the Sheriff’s Office], we don’t want to do that.”

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, the King County Police Officer's Guild, and the Republican members of the King County Council oppose the two amendments.

The Keep Our Sheriff Elected campaign has raised $1,125 and launched the Save Our Sheriff website.

Johanknecht, who was elected in 2017, said that the role of sheriffs is set out by the state, and that the council is overstepping its authority. She said the council also never allowed her to weigh in on Amendment 6 -- allowing them to change the duties of her office. She wrote a letter to council leadership expressing “disappointment and deep concern regarding the unusual process which had the impact of suppressing the expression of disparate views.”

Councilmember Kathy Lambert said the change to an appointed sheriff is opposed by her constituents living in unincorporated King County.

“They do not want to lose their right to vote for the sheriff,” she said. “The sheriff’s department has very direct impacts on their lives and their lifestyle.”

Councilmembers Reagan Dunn and Pete von Reichbauer also voted against the proposed amendments.

In a statement, the King County Police Officer’s Guild said they support maintaining an elected sheriff.

“We recognize the need for changes that Law Enforcement as a whole must address, but this change is not one of them,” they said. “Keep your right to vote.”

The Save Our Sheriff campaign calls Amendment 6 an effort to "defund" the sheriff’s office. It says, “This effort to defund or dismantle the King County Sheriff’s Office is an overreaction to real concerns people have about the role of law enforcement in our community.”