Senate Sidelines Plan To Mandate Elections For County Sheriffs

Apr 4, 2017

Florida lawmakers are pressing pause on a bill that would pave the way for an elected sheriff in Miami-Dade County. The plan is forcing legislators to choose between empowering voters or stepping on the toes of local governments. 

Credit Panda via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/106831113@N02/

Miami-Dade is the only county in the state to not have an elected sheriff. The local government decided to restructure the office in the 1960s, following reports of corruption. Now Miami Republican Senator Frank Artiles is using the same argument to bring back an elected sheriff.

“I think that a consolidation of power is corruption. And therefore I believe that sheriffs should be elected, should have their own budgets, and be constitutional officers. And that is specifically why I’m doing this,” Artiles said.

Artiles wants to draft a constitutional amendment, which would go on the ballot for statewide approval. The issue is forcing lawmakers to weight the merits of home rule against democratically elected officials. Jess McCarty is a lobbyist for Miami-Dade. And he’s concerned about putting the county’s future in the hands of voters from Pensacola to Key West.

“The voters of Miami-Dade County could vote against this and the rest of the state could impose it on the voters of Miami-Dade County,” McCarty said.

Miami-Dade is at the center of the issue, but the change would affect Volusia County as well. Sheriff Mike Chitwood is elected, but he can’t act without the approval of local government.

“Any issue I want to put in place, community policing for example, those issues have to be vetted before the county manager before I can put them in place,” Chitwood said.

Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson says the office should be accountable to voters, not bureaucrats.

“The office of sheriff is essentially the office, or excuse me, the only level of law enforcement in this county in which the local people have a say. They get to set the tempo and tenor of how their office is conducted, how it’s managed,” Adkinson said.

The Florida Constitution protects the right of counties to govern themselves. For Fort Lauderdale Democratic Senator Perry Thurston, that begs the question: why should his county get involved?.

“So because you all don’t have an elected… cause I’m happy with my county, where we do things. And I’m saying because of your situation, Broward County is brought into the fray here?” Thurston asked.

Laura Youmans with the Florida Association of Counties has similar concerns.

“We oppose any change to this provision. We are just philosophically in favor of home rule. We believe that the citizens of Miami-Dade County and the citizens of Volusia County put this in place. They had a reason for it and there is a sufficient opportunity for them to change it,” Youmans said.

There are ways for voters to amend their county charters. But Miami-Dade and Volusia County aren’t pulling those levers right now. Hialeah Republican Senator Rene Garcia has sat on a charter review commission in the past and says it’s an uphill battle.

“Sometimes I see it very difficult for us in Miami-Dade County to try to get issues on the ballot. It’s just very arduous and sometimes it just doesn’t come to fruition,” Garcia said.

Hence the statewide constitutional amendment. But apparently not enough lawmakers think that’s the right way forward. The Senate Judiciary Committee temporarily postponed the bill Tuesday. That implies the plan doesn’t have the votes it needs.