Most local political aspirants hope to one day be elected mayor. But if they're interested in power, maybe they should think about running for county sheriff.
Though funded by the county, the sheriff's office has a great deal of autonomy. He (or she) is elected countywide, controls the jail and law enforcement in the unincorporated areas, and isn't subject to oversight by the county mayor. And he gets to carry a gun and arrest people.
But because of a recent state Supreme Court ruling, the County Commission may look at bringing the sheriff's office, as well as the county trustee, clerk, register, and assessor, more in-house.
In January, the court found that Knox County's charter did not specifically establish the five offices. Instead, the elected positions were established by the state constitution, meaning their local authority is "de facto" or, if you like, "maverick" or "rogue."
Based on the ruling, Shelby County attorney Brian Kuhn recommended changing the charter either by appointing or electing a charter commission or simply holding a countywide referendum to expressly establish the offices. The charter cannot be changed without a referendum, so it appears county voters will be voting on something come fall 2008. Exactly what, however, remains unclear.
And there could be massive governmental changes. At a recent committee meeting, Commissioner Mike Ritz proposed eliminating the sheriff's office altogether in favor of a "metropolitan law enforcement" agency with the city.
Though the de-facto positions are mostly administrative in nature, most Tennessee counties have elected sheriffs and trustees, with the exception of Nashville's Davidson County.
"This is an opportunity to look at what really makes sense from a county-management standpoint," said Commissioner Deidre Malone. "This form of government ... deals with so many elected officials."
For a commission that jumped at the chance to add another judge to Juvenile Court, there's no telling what may happen. An appointed or elected charter commission could look at all pieces of county government like the city's current charter commission, not just the offices that need review.
"You could have a county manager and a board of alderman. You could choose from a variety of different forms of government," said Kuhn.
I'm not sure we need an entirely new system of governance, but it might not be a bad idea to rein in some of the county's free agents.
The people who are in those positions today might not abuse their authority. They might be model citizens. But it's important to think about what could happen.
During former Sheriff A.C. Gilless' tenure, the sheriff's office was tainted by a badge-selling scandal, charges of sexual harassment, wrongful-termination lawsuits, allegations that used equipment was loaned inappropriately to an Arkansas county, and a federal court order to relieve overcrowding and violent conditions in the county jail.
But no matter how bad things seemed, the county mayor and the County Commission were powerless to remove Gilless. Unlike Memphis police director Larry Godwin, the sheriff doesn't serve at the will and pleasure of the mayor.
Maybe he should.
The sheriff serves at the will and pleasure of the voters, and in the absence of term limits for that office, that can be a very long time.
But oversight isn't the only problem with the de-facto offices. General confusion, especially over the powers of each position, can waste time and money.
The trustee's office has fared better than that of the sheriff (although it's hard not to when compared with sexual harassment and federal court orders). But Trustee Bob Patterson seems to revel in his office's outsider status, contending that county purchasing and employment guidelines don't apply. In 1991, he sued then-Mayor Bill Morris for control of county investments. (Three years later, he dropped the lawsuit.)
I don't know if a more cohesive government would be better all around, but if branches are going to be suing each other, well, I have to say it's worth a look.
It's one thing to give someone a badge; it's quite another to give them free rein.