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caption: King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht says the County Council hasn't adequately vetted a proposal giving them more authority over her office.
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King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht says the County Council hasn't adequately vetted a proposal giving them more authority over her office.
Credit: Photo courtesy of KCSO.

King County Council prepares to ask voters for more power over Sheriff’s Office

In the wake of widespread protests against racism and police brutality, a majority on the King County Council are seeking more authority over the Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff says the council’s process has been rushed and could leave voters confused.

This week, the King County Council could vote to approve two charter amendments for voters to consider on the November ballot. One makes the sheriff appointed rather than elected. The other preserves an elected sheriff, but allows the council to legislate the sheriff’s duties.

That amendment would remove charter restrictions on the Sheriff’s Office “being abolished or combined with any other executive department or administrative office, as well as the restriction prohibiting the county council from decreasing the duties of the Sheriff’s Office,” according to a staff report.

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, a sponsor of the second proposal, said in a meeting last week that protesters are calling on their governments to reimagine policing.

“Right now, we have a movement around the country that’s asking us to make big, bold transformational changes to our sheriff’s department,” he said.

“Millions of people are rising up and saying one central message, and that is, ‘defund the police,’” Zahilay continued. “A lot of people when they hear that position, they think people are saying, ‘promote lawlessness, eliminate accountability, decimate public safety.’ That’s not what people are saying at all. It is a catchphrase that means let’s invest in better systems of public safety, let’s reimagine policing as a whole.”

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, who was elected in 2017, says that the role of sheriffs is set out by the state, and that the council is overstepping its authority.

“You would have an elected sheriff that the office was controlled by, the duties controlled by, politicians of the county council,” she said. “There needs to be better vetting of this.”

Johanknecht said she opposes both charter amendments, but the proposal to make the sheriff an appointed position has been evaluated and endorsed by the county’s Charter Review Commission, while the second proposal has not.

She says the dueling amendments could also create confusion for voters. Council staff also noted that the “competing amendments” are at odds in that one mandates an appointed sheriff and the other does not.

In a letter to Council Vice Chair Joe McDermott last week, Johanknecht said her staff hasn’t had the opportunity to weigh in, and expressed “disappointment and deep concern regarding the unusual process which had the impact of suppressing the expression of disparate views” during a meeting last week.

A majority of the council supports going to voters on whether to make the sheriff an appointed rather than elected position.

“I think it will increase the quality of candidates that we can choose from,” Councilmember Rod Dembowski said. He said a sheriff appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the council would be more accountable “in terms of implementing reforms and policies.”

But Councilmember Kathy Lambert said the change 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 voted against both proposals in committee.

Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said the amendment giving the council more authority over the sheriff’s department is timely as the role of policing is reexamined around the country.

“I think we should lean into this and embrace it,” he said. “We won’t be able to do that if we’ve tied our own hands through our charter.”

Upthegrove said if the charter amendment passes, the council would listen to law enforcement and affected community groups before making any changes.

“I hear from a lot of law enforcement officers who would be happy if some of those duties were taken off their plate,” he said.