Legislature Mulling Change in Sheriff's Office

Bill would restore privileges and obligations that were erased with charter changes of 20088.


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Back in 2008, Shelby County government found itself about to lose several major offices — those of Sheriff, Trustee, Assessor, County Clerk, and Register, 
Rep. Joe Towns - JB
  • JB
  • Rep. Joe Towns
and had to make several changes to bring those offices within the purview of the county charter, redefining the terms, means of election, duties, and functionings of those offices.

The problem arose because of a judicial finding the previous year in Knox County that several offices in that county were not, as had been supposed, covered by the state constitution. The ruling was adjudged applicable to Shelby County as well. The upshot was that Knox and Shelby Counties were forced to redefine the affected offices as charter, rather than constitutional, offices.

In the case of Knox, the switch of jurisdictions was largely pro forma. In the case of Shelby, the County Commissioners of that time took advantage of the legal dilemma to make amendments in the rights, privileges, and obligations of various offices.

Legislation is now afoot in Nashville that would abolish the changes of 2008 as they affected the office of Sheriff and restore the governing definitions of that office to the circumstances before the changeover from constitutional to charter status.

The bill is HB1423, sponsored by Rep. Joe Towns (D-Mempnis), doubling as SB 501 by Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), and the relevant wording of it follows:

(c) No charter, whether existing or adopted after the effective date of this act,
may be interpreted or amended to alter, amend, or reduce the duties, qualifications, or
privileges of the constitutional county offices of sheriff, register, county clerk, assessor of
property, or trustee in a manner inconsistent with the laws of this state; provided, that a
charter may increase the duties of such offices in a manner consistent with the laws of
this state.

From a legalistic point of view, the bill merely restores the mandates for Shelby County Sheriff to the those incumbent on Sheriffs in the state’s other 94 counties. From a practical point of view, it would alter the fiscal and power relationships between the Office of Sheriff and the County Commission, and that alteration is very much desired by current Sheriff Floyd Bonner and other members of his staff, according to the Department’s legislative liaison, Nelia Dempsey..

Before 2008, the Sheriff’s Department could not only set its own budget (as it still does under terms adopted for the charter), but it was empowered to sue in court if the Commission declined to endow the Department with its desired allocations. The charter reconstruction of the office placed jurisdiction of the fiscal issue in the hands of the Commission rather than those of a judge. HB1423/SB501 would restore the Department’s right to seek legal redress.

Similarly, the bill would restore the right of the Sheriff to petition for a legal change in the salary levels approved by the Commission. The other major changes imposed by the charter changes of 2008 had to do with limiting a Sheriff’s terms of service to two and requiring that candidates for Sheriff pass Peace Officer’s Service and Training (POST) standards.

As of this week, the bill had passed through two preliminary hoops in the state Senate. Action in the House Cities and Counties subcommittee was deferred for one week on Tuesday by House sponsor Towns.

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