Law & Justice

Future Whatcom sheriffs may be appointed, not elected

Change would need voter approval, take effect in 2027
August 4, 2023 at 5:28 p.m.
Whatcom County sheriff's deputies and Bellingham police officers carry flags in March at a St. Patrick's Day parade in Bellingham. A new proposal would make the county sheriff's position appointed rather than elected.
Whatcom County sheriff's deputies and Bellingham police officers carry flags in March at a St. Patrick's Day parade in Bellingham. A new proposal would make the county sheriff's position appointed rather than elected. (Trenton Almgren-Davis/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

This November might be the last time Whatcom County voters choose their next sheriff. 

But the final decision on a resolution to make the sheriff an appointed rather than elected position would be up to voters — and wouldn't take effect until 2027.

On Tuesday, Aug. 8, the county council may advance that resolution, proposed by council member Todd Donovan, as two candidates ramp up their campaigns to replace longtime Sheriff Bill Elfo.

Doug Chadwick, Elfo’s undersheriff, and Blaine Police Chief Donnell “Tank” Tanksley both seek Elfo’s job. The sheriff is the top law enforcement officer in Whatcom County’s unincorporated areas outside the cities, and they run the county jail.

“This could be a longtime discussion,” Donovan said at the July 25 council meeting. “I just wanted to get it out there before it became about who wins or loses in this sheriff’s election.”

Donovan could not be immediately reached for comment, but a draft of the resolution indicates his reasons for proposing the change. 

The resolution says the sheriff “should be insulated from the forces of partisan politics,” and “the operation of a jail should be directed by an appointed administrator rather than an elected politician.”

The resolution also asserts that if the sheriff were appointed, the county could require previous law enforcement experience and recruit candidates from outside Whatcom County — options not available when the sheriff is elected from the pool of registered voters who live in the county.

Donovan’s resolution doesn’t say who would appoint the sheriff, but in any case, it wouldn’t happen until the end of 2027 — after either Chadwick or Tanksley serves his four-year term. 

Making the sheriff an appointed position would mean changing the county charter, which requires voter approval. Donovan proposes putting the measure on the countywide ballot in November 2024.

Although Donovan attempted to distance his action from this year’s election, Chadwick responded to his proposal in a July 27 email to Cascadia Daily News. He said the sheriff is a nonpartisan position, and the person in the job should know the community from the inside.

“In order to maintain accountability and responsiveness to the citizens they serve, the sheriff should remain elected by the people,” Chadwick said.

Responding to a request for comment, Tanksley said Friday, Aug. 4 that nobody he has spoken to while campaigning has raised the issue of whether the sheriff should be elected or appointed.

“As sheriff, I don't plan to weigh in on whether I’m elected or appointed,” Tanksley said in an email. “If the voters want to change the charter, it will be their decision, and I will support the will of the people.”

King County voters in November 2020 approved the switch from an elected to an appointed sheriff. Meanwhile, sheriffs in Skagit, San Juan, Island and Snohomish counties are all elected. 

The Whatcom County Council will need to decide whether to put the proposal before the voters. That debate isn’t likely to begin in earnest until after the council’s Aug. 8 meeting.

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