The Case for Appointing the Pierce County Auditor and Sheriff
In December 1978, a federal grand jury indicted 15 men, including Pierce County Sheriff George Janovich, for racketeering. During the trial, it was revealed that the department was protecting John Carbone’s crime syndicate in exchange for bribes, covering up various crimes such as murder, arson, extortion, and assaults.
In response, Pierce County voters approved a new home rule charter making dramatic changes to the county’s form of government. The most significant was scrapping the commission system, creating separate branches of government, the Council in the legislative branch, and an elected Executive to run the administrative functions.
The Charter also eliminated four separately elected executive branch offices. The clerk, treasury, coroner, and sheriff responsibilities moved to departments under the new elected County Executive. Under Washington’s Constitution, the Prosecutor and judges must remain elected positions — the rest is up to residents of home rule counties.
For those experienced in city government, this will seem odd. Whether your city is a council-manager or mayor-council system, executive branch employees are almost always appointed by the administration. On top of their management duties, they serve as non-political advisors to both the executive branch and the council.
Lastly, if there does become a problem, the elected Executive can remove and replace them with another qualified candidate and we don’t need to wait for the end of their term hoping voters intervene.
All of this is why I drafted three bills that would send charter proposals to the voters. If approved, they would change the remaining separately elected executive offices into appointed offices. After discussion with my colleagues, it was clear that there was less appetite to move forward with the Assessor-Treasurer’s office, so that bill did not move forward while the other two will be up for Council consideration Tuesday, July 27th.
The qualifications for running a department of local government are a combination of expertise in the field as well as management skills. For a large jurisdiction like Pierce County, a national recruitment should attract many competent candidates. Our two most recent department heads come to us from out of state.
The vast majority of senior leadership in local government is recruited this way. In Pierce County, that means the Executive looks for the most capable Planning and Public Works Director, Clerk, Emergency Manager, or whatever. After selection, the Council confirms the appointment. The Executive is charged with this duty because they’re in the best position to find a great fit for Medical Examiner while voters in other counties elect coroners with mixed results.
Elections limit the pool of talent in several ways. First and most obviously, candidates for office must live in the jurisdiction where they’re seeking office. They also have to be willing to submit themselves to the election process. When the most qualified candidates are those who have come up through the ranks, this can seem like a risky decision.
While it’s often the case that we get lucky and someone runs for these offices of equal competence to professionals in the field, there’s a tremendous amount of downside risk. The former Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam is a recent example. His tenure cost taxpayers millions. Read this series from The News Tribune if you don’t remember that debacle.
Our current Auditor, Julie Anderson, provides the counterexample. By all accounts, she’s a sharp manager and highly regarded across the political spectrum — an essential characteristic for an election administrator.
That’s why it was a surprise to some that she recommended this amendment to the Council, for consideration by voters. To me, it was the logical extension of her career.
While Anderson certainly had a management background that would serve her well in the job, she had no experience in elections. Her main claim to fame and the likely reason she won the election is that she had served on the Tacoma City Council. As a result, she knows better than anyone what it meant for someone like her to become an effective Auditor.
She had to master how to run elections, which is to say to learn from the experts who were already there doing the job. But that wasn’t the most crucial reason for taking the politics out of this position.
Pierce County voters made the county auditor a nonpartisan position in 2009. But even so designated, the 2022 election for a new auditor will attract partisan candidates that could leave voters without uniquely qualified, nonpartisan candidates to choose from.
Given how polarized our political environment has become, there is a real risk that extremists would advance to the general election ballot.
Electing a Pierce County auditor favors extremists, not pros. So let's stop doing it
This coming week, I will ask the Pierce County Council to put a measure on the November ballot so that voters can…
You may have noticed earlier that I mentioned the Charter made the Sheriff an appointed position after the Janovich scandal. That was the case until 2006, when voters went the other direction. Perhaps with enough distance, people no longer saw the issue and wanted to give it a shot.
The case for making the Sheriff appointed is the same for not electing your coroner. The stakes for criminal law are high, and removing the appearance of politics is preferable. For this reason, police chiefs are always appointed. A county our size would find a large number of qualified and respected prospects through a national recruitment.
That’s how our previous Sheriff, Paul Pastor, arrived in Pierce County. He was recruited from Snohomish County Sheriff Department. The last two decades of leadership in the department would not have been possible under the current system.
In public safety the norm is appointed professionals. You will find no elected fire chiefs, emergency managers, or even the people running 911.
The Pierce County Charter states, “amendments may be proposed by the Commission, the Council, or the people. Any Charter amendment proposed by the Commission or the Council shall be filed with the filing officer and submitted to the voters at the next November general election occurring at least 90 calendar days after filing.”
If one or both of the amendments pass with a supermajority of five votes in favor, and then received voter approval, nothing will change immediately. The officeholders would be able to fill out their remaining term. The Auditor’s final term expires in 2022, so the Executive would recruit to fill it in 2023. The Sheriff is at the beginning of his term, and it would not be open until 2025.
Since some have questioned my motives, I’ll note that my final term also expires in 2022. Regardless of the outcome, I would have no role in either appointment. For me, this is about good government and giving Pierce County residents the best odds of having capable department-level officials.