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Proposal Giving Cuyahoga County Sheriff More Authority Heading To Ballot

The county jail and courtrooms are housed in Cuyahoga County's Justice Center in downtown Cleveland. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
The county jail and courtrooms are found in Cuyahoga County's Justice Center in downtown Cleveland. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Updated: 12:31 p.m., July 24, 2019

Cuyahoga County voters will have the chance to make a change to the county charter, possibly giving the sheriff more authority over his staff and the county jail.

The proposed charter amendment, which will be on the November ballot, comes in light of a  string of inmate deathsand lawsuits related to the facility. A U.S. Marshalls' report last year called conditions at the downtown jail "inhumane".

The amendment keeps the sheriff an appointed position but would give council the authority to approve the appointment or re-appointment every four years.  It would also give the county council the power to fire the sheriff after a public hearing and with a supermajority of eight of the council's 11 members.

The council's 10-1 vote came after a competing proposal supported by Council President Dan Brady failed to make it out of committee.  Brady had proposed returning the sheriff to an elected position.  He ended up voting for the charter amendment.  

"I've learned along the way that if you get about 75 percent of what you intended to do, in the work I do, that's worth doing," Brady said. "It gives the sheriff a significant amount of independence that they don't currently have which is what the entire council was determined to try to do. I felt like it went a long way toward achieving the goals in the original legislation so I was more than happy to support it."

Councilman and Justice Commitee chairman Michael Gallagher disagreed.  He was the lone dissenting vote.

"I think it's at best a half measure and I don't think we should be in the business of pushing forward half measures when we have the problems that we have," Gallagher said.

He said he had followed the recommendation of witnesses from the sheriff's department who had testified they were "sick and tired of what they were dealing with" and had recommended an elected sheriff.

"That's not a reflection on the past sheriffs, it's a reflection on the administration of the county and interference from the administration regarding the sheriff," Gallagher said. "To me, I was not going to vote against law enforcement or the judges, I think they're the experts."

The county has had four sheriffs since 2010, when the county's governance changed from that of a board of commissioners and an elected sheriff to that of a county executive, who appoints the sheriff.  That overhaul came following a sweeping corruption scandal.

Council President Brady did not say why his proposal to return the sheriff to an elected position failed.  He said he did not want to speak for the four council members who were against it.   A supermajority of eight votes was required to get the proposal before voters.

"I think that they considered it too much of a departure from the charter as it was passed by the voters in 2009, would be my best guess," Brady said.

Brady believes council will urge voters to pass the charter amendment when it comes before them in November.  Gallagher, though, will not be among them.  He said he didn't vote for it in committee and won't vote for it on Election Day.

"I would recommend that they (voters) read it. I think once the electorate gets done reading it, it will be a pretty quick 'no'," Gallagher said. "If they don't read it and just vote 'yes' without any background on it, then hey, you deserve what you get, what you elect."

Sheriff Clifford Pinkney is retiring next month and Brady believes the changes, if they get the voters' stamp of approval, will make the job more attractive for a potential candidate.

"What we want is a sheriff who is well qualified and independent and I think this legislation goes a long way toward making that a fact," Brady said.

Gallagher thinks the proposal might attract better candidates but is worried about the job's current requirements.

"I find it interesting that in the legislation it asks for an associate's or bachelor's degree," Gallagher said. "At least in my city in Strongsville, you have to hvae a bachelor's degree to be a police officer."

County Executive Armond Budish has yet to to put forth nominees to fill the soon-to-be-vacant sheriff position. Brady said there's no timeline for hearings to begin.

Budish has not responded to ideastream's request for comment on the proposed charter amendment or the nomination of a new sheriff.

Glenn Forbes is supervising producer of newscasts at Ideastream Public Media.