Watchdog group skeptical of appointing ‘interim’ Ramsey County sheriff

Pioneer Press

By Tad Vezner | tvezner@pioneerpress.com

December 31, 2016

A government watchdog group has joined a chorus concerned that the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners is interviewing just one candidate for interim sheriff — a position that would give him a decided advantage come election time.

“A fair process should be open to an entire universe of possible candidates — not to just one insider,” the group, Saint Paul STRONG, said Friday in a written statement, noting that the position would be a two-year appointment.

Last week, the Ramsey County Board decided to interview only Chief Deputy Sheriff Jack Serier, outgoing Sheriff Matt Bostrom’s second-in-command, for the opening.

The members had previously expressed interest in an open-application process. However, they subsequently decided against it, noting that the process would take months and that they were happy with the direction the sheriff’s office was heading.

In a written reaction, County Board chair Victoria Reinhardt said she “appreciated” Saint Paul STRONG’s comments and noted that Serier would be interviewed during a Tuesday public forum at the Ramsey County Courthouse.

The bigger issue, critics say, is that incumbent sheriffs are very difficult to defeat come election time. They add that by appointing an “interim” sheriff, the County Board is likely appointing someone who will have the job for years to come, should he want it.

“The fact is, sheriff’s races, people don’t really pay attention to them,” said Laura Goodman, a retired longtime law enforcement official who once headed Minnesota’s crime victim ombudsman’s office and who has stated interest in the Ramsey County sheriff’s position. “An incumbent sheriff rarely — rarely — has any competition. By the board doing this, they’re creating an incumbent sheriff. People go to the election box, see an incumbent and go ‘check.’ ”

In 1992, when Ramsey County Sheriff Charles Zacharias retired in midterm, the County Board asked his internal replacement, Pat Moen, to agree not to run in the next election if she were to take the position.

It was the only time in recent history that a Ramsey County sheriff had exited midterm. Moen became the county’s first female sheriff, for two years.

“I’m hoping the board’s decision would lead to a more open election in 2018. I think given where we are today, and given what the board is likely to do, that would a good middle ground,” said Nancy Haas, a lobbyist, attorney and police officer who chairs the St. Paul Police Foundation. “I’ve talked to a lot people who would like to apply, but say they wouldn’t run against an incumbent. … There’s a strong pool of local residents and law enforcement leaders who would consider this (interim) position if it was open.”

In its statement, Saint Paul STRONG agreed: “By not doing so (giving a stipulation against running), the Board, rather than the voters, will effectively be deciding the 2018 election for sheriff.”

In recent instances, both the St. Paul school board and city council appointed interim members — with the condition that they wouldn’t run in the next election.

But Reinhardt was dismissive of the idea.

“Throughout this process, board members have all emphasized that the top priority in this decision is public safety. Asking any appointee to act strictly as a placeholder for nearly two years is at odds with the continuing advancement of public safety for our residents and other stakeholders,” Reinhardt said, adding she believed that voters would get their say in 2018.

Goodman also took issue with the board using the precedent that 11 of the last 12 openings for an interim county sheriff elsewhere in Minnesota were filled by county boards with a second-in-command.

“That’s fine, that’s a fact, but then you have to ask yourself what does that mean,” Goodman said, saying that process perpetuates a system that isn’t necessarily the best one.

“In Minnesota, there are 87 sheriffs, and three are women. … That perpetuates a process that prohibits new blood from coming in. New ideas, new visions, different thinking than what’s always been done.”

Current Sheriff Matt Bostrom is retiring Tuesday to take a position with the University of Oxford in England; the election for a new sheriff will be in 2018. County charter and state law indicate that a county board is responsible for appointing someone to fill a sheriff’s vacancy but does not specify the process to do so.

Ramsey County staff told commissioners they could take one of several paths: a conventional, national search with a hired firm taking six to seven months; an expedited process where commissioners take applications and interview, which could take two to three months; interview just Serier; or appoint Serier outright. The two last options would take a matter of weeks.

The board chose to interview Serier on Tuesday, rather than appoint him outright. Members have said they have confidence in Serier but could decide to accept other applicants for the job if they are not satisfied with the vision he spells out.

If commissioners proceed with Serier as their choice, they could appoint him sheriff at their Jan. 10 meeting.