Utah’s county sheriffs are elected, but a legislator says they should be appointed, like city police chiefs.

“We have had these terrible situations in Davis and Weber counties, and I’m saying, what is this,” Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, said. “I’m just responding to the outrage from my constituents.”

The two sheriff’s offices have had major controversies in recent years, including deaths in both jails, deputy misconduct including sexual harassment in the Davis jail, and a supervisory deputy allegedly having sex with female Weber jail inmates.

The Weber office’s evidence room custodian was convicted of 40 charges after eating confiscated methamphetamine, and the Davis office was stripped of financial authority amid an investigation into misuse of funds.

So last fall, Handy started working on a bill to allow residents in a county to run a referendum that would switch their county’s sheriff selection process from an elected position to one appointed by the county commission.

“I just do not believe we should have elected sheriffs,” he said. “It’s just wrong. It’s a vestige of the Old West and should go the way of buggy whips.”

But then word got out, and Handy soon encountered heavy opposition from sheriffs and other elected county officials whom he said were “fearful that we, the people, would want to change something.”

He said people from the Utah Sheriffs’ Association told him, “What you’re messing with is a constitutional office here.”

“I could just see that all you know what would break loose,” Handy said, so he abandoned the bill.

“I have all these other fish to fry this session, so I’m going to put it on a back burner,” he said.

Utah sheriffs often invoke their status as independently elected county officials in turf struggles with county commissions, such as those that flared between Davis commissioners and Sheriff Todd Richardson, who left office this month.

“I have thought this for a long time — why do we have an elected sheriff,” Handy said. “We would never elect a police chief.”

Handy said an appointment process for sheriff would increase the reliability that “the most highly qualified individuals” would be chosen to run the county law enforcement agencies.

Davis County’s new sheriff, Kelly Sparks, said Monday he understands some of Handy’s concerns.

“But sheriff is the only law enforcement official directly elected by the people and accountable directly to the people,” Sparks said.

He said electing sheriffs “removes some of the inner office politics” and even “undue influence” that might otherwise interfere with the essential parts of the job.

Sparks said the existing system has “a pretty important system of checks and balances.”

“The county commissioners certainly have their role and their fiduciary responsibility” and the two offices are independent from one another, Sparks said.

It comes down to everyone working together, he said.

“It’s an obligation of anyone in an elected position to work on those relationships,” Sparks said.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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