CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the fourth time in the past 30 years, state residents will vote next month on a proposed constitutional amendment to end term limits for county sheriffs.
Under the current system, sheriffs are limited to two consecutive terms.
Proponents of ending the term limits argue that holding sheriffs to only eight years in office is a throwback to an outdated political system, and say the term limits hurt both sheriffs and the general public.
Before 1973, sheriffs in West Virginia were limited to a single term. Voters approved an amendment allowing a second term in 1973, but proposed amendments to end term limits altogether failed in 1982, 1986 and 1994.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant missed a deadline for legal advertisements announcing November's constitutional amendment to again abolish term limits, but doesn't believe the oversight will keep the issue off the ballot. Political activist Thornton Cooper, who discovered the missed deadline, has said he might go to court if the amendment passes.
Rudi Raynes-Kidder, executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association, said West Virginia, Indiana and New Mexico are the only three states that limit the terms for sheriffs. The sheriff is the only county official in the state with a term limit.
Term limits for sheriffs go back to the very beginnings of West Virginia's history.
"A hundred and fifty years ago, when we were still in Virginia, the sheriff was a very powerful person," said Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford, who is finishing up his second term in the position.
At the time, Rutherford said, the sheriff was both the chief law enforcement authority in the county and was responsible for collecting all taxes. With little in the way of state or federal oversight, lawmakers of the time wanted to limit the potential for abuse in the office.
But Hancock County Sheriff Mike White, president of the state Sheriffs' Association, said those days are past.
"I think West Virginia needs to come into the modern century," said White.
"If you talk with older folks in government, they'll say sheriffs have too much power, that there can be corruption. But there are so many checks and balances now that if you do something wrong, you're going to get caught," he said.
Rutherford, who has more than three decades in law enforcement, conceded the end of term limits could put someone in the sheriff's office for decades and hurt the chances of deputies to move up in the system and become sheriffs themselves. But he said only sheriffs who are good at their jobs will be re-elected year after year.
"If people don't do their job, they're voted out," Rutherford said. "If you have a good sheriff, and the people re-elect the sheriff, then they're doing a good job."
Cooper, who supports term limits for other county and state offices, believes the 1973 constitutional amendment, which allowed a second consecutive term, went far enough in broadening opportunities for sheriffs. Prior to that, sheriffs could serve only one term, and had to completely leave the sheriff's department before running again. Under the amendment adopted in 1973, sheriff's can at least go back to being deputies and remain within the department if they want to sit out a term before running for re-election.
Despite more oversight than in the past, Cooper believes the sheriff still wields too much power to be allowed an indefinite reign.
The West Virginia Deputy Sheriffs Association has not taken a formal position on the term limit amendment. Association president Terry Miller was unavailable this week, and vice president Dave Gentry declined comment.
Raynes-Kidder said term limits on sheriffs can hurt retirement options for some police officers. With only eight years in office, a sheriff might be too young to retire at the end of a second term, but too old to go back to police work, she said.
While they could take a term off and run for sheriff again in four or more years, neither Rutherford nor White expects to run again for sheriff. White is instead running for Hancock County magistrate, and Rutherford hopes to be able to retire before he could run again in 2016.
Rutherford -- whose brother, longtime Kanawha sheriff's deputy Johnny Rutherford, is running unopposed to take his brother's place as sheriff -- said it takes most of a sheriff's first term to learn all the details of the job.
"Just about the time you learn what you're doing and get into the groove, you're out the door," he said.
White agreed, adding that limiting terms can rob citizens of well-seasoned sheriffs.
"I have 39 years experience in law enforcement," he said. "I think I bring a lot to the table. There are a lot of good sheriffs in the state that folks are going to lose [because they can only run for two terms]."
White said citizens should decide who their sheriff is. "The state's taking that out of their hands by term limiting," he said.
Reach Rusty Marks at rustyma...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.