Jul 26, 2023 - Politics

New group campaigns for elected Cuyahoga County sheriff

Illustration of a cowboy hat over a divided green and yellow background with elements of ballots.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Just days after Cuyahoga County swore in its ninth sheriff in 12 years, a local group formally launched a campaign to amend the county charter and return the sheriff to an elected position.

Why it matters: Cuyahoga County is the only one of Ohio's 88 counties to appoint, rather than elect, the county's chief law enforcement officer.

  • The newly formed Northeast Ohio Public Safety Coalition is the result of a growing movement that believes the revolving door of appointments has led to low staff morale among deputies, weak relationships with regional law enforcement agencies, and dysfunction at the county jail.

Flashback: Voters adopted a new form of county government in 2009, after the Jimmy Dimora corruption scandals, that eliminated a number of elected positions, including the sheriff.

By the numbers: Since 2009, six sheriffs have resigned.

What they're saying: "We've had nine sheriffs in 12 years," said Colin Sikon from Laborers Local Union 860, the union representing sheriff's deputies.

  • "For anyone in Cleveland, you realize that's almost as terrible as [the number of] Browns quarterbacks."

The latest: The Northeast Ohio Public Safety Foundation will try to persuade Cuyahoga County Council to pass a resolution returning to an elected sheriff.

  • Yes, but: Council members are divided, and the group's leaders are prepared to collect signatures to take the issue directly to voters.

The other side: The Plain Dealer editorial board wrote in 2019 that the crises emanating from the county jail had more to do with leadership than with government structure.

  • The idea of returning to an elected sheriff, they wrote, was "a cynical ploy to use voters’ anger to get them to vote for change, even if that change is a return to a day when patronage was common and corruption was rampant."

What's next: It's unlikely the Northeast Ohio Public Safety Foundation could collect signatures quickly enough to get a measure on the 2023 ballot, Jonathan Petrea, one of the coalition's leaders, told Axios, so right now they're in the "awareness raising phase."

  • The next opportunity for a ballot initiative would be the March 2024 primaries.

The bottom line: "I've knocked on a lot of doors, and I don't live in a bubble," Petrea said. "And there's bipartisan support for this."

  • "Most people's first reaction is, 'We don't vote for our sheriff?'" Petrea said. "And the second is, 'That's not right.'"
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