Referendum for Harford Sheriff

October 11, 1993

Now is the time for Harford's County Council to give voters a chance to decide the future of law enforcement in a growing, changing community: whether they want the police department and jail under county government instead of under an elected sheriff.

The council has until Thursday to act on proposals to submit the question to referendum. Otherwise, the legislation automatically dies under the 60-day rule.

The issues have been debated, discussed and analyzed by the public and by officials. The latest round has sunk to name-calling and legal nitpicking. People disagree on cost estimates and on the advisability of changing the sheriff's office. But that is to be expected in open democratic society.

The year remaining before a referendum is held in November 1994 will allow for more than ample discussion and elaboration of the issues.

County Executive Eileen Rehrmann, who seeks re-election in 1994, decided to put all her eggs in one basket, asking for a law directly transferring both jail and police authority to her office. She then withdrew her omnibus legislation, after public demands for a referendum. But both issues remain before the council for decision.

While voters may well have different feelings about who should manage the jail and who should manage police, the two have become so intertwined that a single decision is probably preferable. But Councilman Philip Barker's proposal to separate the two on the ballot merits serious consideration.

Mrs. Rehrmann declined to ask the council to transfer only detention center authority, which could have occurred without a referendum, as has been done elsewhere. Ongoing revelations of detention center mismanagement under the sheriff's office underscores the need for change in that institution well before November 1994.

Harford is the only metropolitan charter government county that retains full powers in an elected sheriff, the others having gone to police agencies under an appointed professional chief. Citizens may disagree on the wisdom of keeping that distinction, but they deserve a chance to vote on it.

Cutting deals between the county executive and sheriff to smooth over problems, as was done in the past, provides no dependable structure on which to base law enforcement in the county. It relies too much on personalities of incumbents, who invariably change. The council must move to put the matter before the voters.

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