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Appointed or elected? Pierce County voters may soon decide how to pick sheriff, auditor

Donna Stath, who works in the Pierce County Auditor's office, helps voters drop off ballots at a drop box in Tacoma.
Parker Miles Blohm
Donna Stath, who works in the Pierce County Auditor's office, helps voters drop off ballots at a drop box in Tacoma in 2020.

Pierce County voters might get to choose whether they will continue electing their sheriff come November. The Pierce County Council is considering a ballot measure that, if approved this fall, would change the sheriff from an elected position to an appointed one. 

The change would require an amendment to the county charter, similar to what King County did in November 2020. Placing the proposal on the ballot requires support from five of the seven council members.

The council also is considering the same change for county auditor, a request made by Julie Anderson, the current auditor whose term ends next year.

The proposal to change how the county chooses its sheriff comes at a time when Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer’s conduct has been called into question. But Council Chair Derek Young says the proposal is about making government work better, not the outcome of the recent election. 

“It’s not a power thing at all,” Young told KNKX Public Radio. “It’s about how do we best operate county government forever.”

Young says he feels strongly that professionalizing positions such as sheriff and auditor is vital for attracting the most qualified candidates. It would bring the process in line with how other top law enforcement officers — police chiefs — are recruited in departments across the country. He also said it will improve oversight. 

“It’s simply about, do we want a bunch of elected executive positions that are outside the control of our elected executive?” Young said.

Voters will still have a say if they’re dissatisfied with the performance of those individuals, Young added, since the positions would fall under the authority of the county executive, whom they elect.

“So you have someone that they are going to be accountable to and voters can respond if they don’t like how they’re running their departments,” Young said. 

The effort has the support of Pierce County's current elected executive, Bruce Dammeier.

“Just like we no longer elect a coroner, but appoint a medical examiner, the sheriff’s position is so critical we need to look beyond just the borders of Pierce County to find the absolute best law enforcement leader for our community," Dammeier told KNKX.

If the change happens, it won’t be the first time Pierce County has appointed a sheriff. In fact, November 2020 was the only truly open election in two decades. Before that, the position was appointed. 

Troyer’s predecessor, Paul Pastor, was the county’s longest-serving sheriff. He was initially appointed through a recruitment process before winning election after the county made the switch to an elected sheriff. 

The Pierce County Council will consider the ballot measures on appointing sheriff and auditor at its regular meeting Tuesday. If two-thirds of the council approves, they will appear on the November ballot.

Story updated at 5:40 p.m. with statement from Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.

Kari Plog is KNKX's South Sound reporter covering people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.