Council rejects proposal to appoint Whatcom County sheriff

Sheriff Elfo goes public with his opposition
August 10, 2023 at 12:56 p.m.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo drives a classic Chevrolet on May 27, as grand marshal of the Whatcom Memorial Day Parade. Elfo told the county council on Tuesday, Aug. 8, that he opposed a resolution to make the sheriff an appointed position.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo drives a classic Chevrolet on May 27, as grand marshal of the Whatcom Memorial Day Parade. Elfo told the county council on Tuesday, Aug. 8, that he opposed a resolution to make the sheriff an appointed position. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

A proposal to make the Whatcom County sheriff an appointed position won’t be considered anytime soon, after county council members on Tuesday, Aug. 8 heard vehement opposition to the idea from the public and the sheriff himself.

“The citizens of our county should be deeply concerned about maintaining their right to directly select and hold their sheriff accountable, and be wary of the motivation behind efforts to take their rights away,” Sheriff Bill Elfo said at Tuesday’s council meeting, after noting this was the first time in 21 years as sheriff that he had signed up as a member of the public to speak to council. 

Elfo, a former Blaine police chief, is retiring at the end of the year. He has been in law enforcement for almost 50 years.

“We the people have the right to this elected position,” Ferndale resident Tami Dockter told the council, shortly after Elfo spoke.

“I don’t trust the seven of you or any seven, no matter who you are, to make this decision in the best interest of the citizens of this county,” Dockter added. “You need to stay in your lane and out of the sheriff’s office.”

At the end of the meeting, council members killed the resolution to appoint future sheriffs, introduced by council member Todd Donovan, in a 4–2 vote. Only Donovan and council member Carol Frazey supported further consideration of the proposal. Council member Kaylee Galloway abstained.

Barry Buchanan, who identifies as a Democrat in his nonpartisan position on the county council, joined the group’s three conservatives in defeating the resolution.

“I’m very encouraged to hear all the support in this room for democracy,” Buchanan said. “I am enthusiastically going to say ‘no’ to this. I don’t see any value to it whatsoever.”

As an elected position, the only requirement to run for sheriff is to be a registered voter who resides in the county.

In an interview Thursday, Donovan said the council missed an opportunity to debate “best practices for selecting the person who is administering law enforcement and who is administering the jail.”

Donovan said the “highly partisan” climate of an election might not be the best environment to select the county sheriff. 

“We potentially could have an inclusive process, a stakeholders committee that could include voices that may be drowned out in an election,” he said. He added that the search could go national to find a qualified law enforcement professional.

“Those are fundamental questions in governance,” Donovan said. “Clearly, the council is afraid to talk about these things.”

To give an example of how elections don’t bring forward the best candidates, Donovan pointed to the most recent Whatcom County sheriff’s race, in 2019, when someone with no background in law enforcement challenged Elfo. Elfo defeated Joy Gilfilen by more than a 2–1 margin.

Donovan’s resolution wouldn’t have taken effect until the end of 2027 — after the next sheriff completes the four-year term.

Doug Chadwick, Elfo’s undersheriff, and Blaine Police Chief Donnell “Tank” Tanksley are running to replace Elfo on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Donovan said he timed his proposal so that it wouldn’t be about either the current sheriff, who is stepping down at the end of the year, or the next sheriff, since no one knows who that will be.

Donovan hopes the Charter Review Commission will revive his proposal to make the sheriff an appointed position when it meets in 2025, even though the timing will be less ideal. Chadwick or Tanksley will be in the middle of their first term that year.

The Charter Review Commission meets every 10 years to propose changes to the county charter, a document similar to a state or federal constitution. Any proposed changes to the charter — including Donovan’s resolution from Aug. 8, had it not died in council — would need to go to county voters for final approval.

Now, the soonest voters might consider making the sheriff an appointed position would be November 2025.

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