In general, I believe that positions that make policy should be elected, and positions that don’t, and are more administrative in nature, should not be. Loudoun County has a very traditional form of government that elects “constitutional officers” — the commonwealth’s attorney, clerk of the circuit court, treasurer, commissioner of revenue and sheriff. The General Assembly has created other forms of government that other jurisdictions similar to Loudoun have adopted. In those cases, that includes a police department to handle daily law enforcement needs, which co-exists with a sheriff who handles the detention centers, court security and warrant-serving functions. Our neighbors in Fairfax County, Prince William County and Arlington County have police departments. There are different variations to these forms of governments that impact the other positions as well — for instance, Fairfax County does not elect a treasurer or commissioner of revenue. I can tell you from experience that a lot of our citizens aren’t necessarily aware of which positions are elected and which aren’t — I’ve gotten more than a few emails over the years asking us to “fire” an elected official, which of course we can’t do.
There are pros and cons to these different approaches. In the jurisdictions that do have a police chief he or she does not report directly to the Board of Supervisors, but rather the county executive, which is an appointed position. In Loudoun, the Board of Supervisors only has two “direct reports” — the county administrator and the county attorney (not to be confused with the commonwealth’s attorney). The county administrator runs the day to day operations of county government, and the county attorney (and his office of lawyers) advise the board on legal matters as they relate to land use, ordinances and government operations (as opposed to the commonwealth attorney, who handles criminal matters). So, for instance, in the case of our other large public safety department, Loudoun County Fire-Rescue, the combined system chief was hired by the county administrator and reports to him. While it is true that the county administrator reports directly to the board, the board is made up of nine people, not one, so “power” is spread out, and the county administrator solely makes personnel decisions, which in my experience is without interference from the Board of Supervisors.
For that reason, some argue that a police department is inherently less political, because the chief law enforcement officer is not an elected official and is accountable to county staff and subject to the rules, regulations and transparency of county government, which the sheriff is not. We have a two-party system, and each party typically runs candidates for sheriff, which again inserts a political element to the position. The sheriff receives funding from the Board of Supervisors, but the board or the county administrator have no say in the operations of the department. While I receive complaints almost every day about speeding and other issues, it is ultimately up to sheriff’s office to address those.
We have been fortunate in Loudoun County to have a professional, well-trained sheriff’s office. The Board of Supervisors has at times had disagreements with the sheriff over various issues, but in general I think it is a good agency and the deputies do a very good job.
The question that has been raised is not about the current state of the sheriff’s office, which is largely influenced by who the occupant of the office is, but rather the future (any change would not take effect until 2024). There are no specified qualifications to run for sheriff — anyone can run, regardless of their experience. We’ve seen numerous times how good political skills and lots of money influence elections, and while it is one thing for that to happen in a policy position, an essential first responder position, in my view, is a little different.
All of the deputies are at-will employees of the sheriff, meaning that they can be replaced without cause every four years, regardless of their performance. So, for those reasons and lots of others, the bottom line is that I think this is a legitimate topic for discussion. Similarly, it is also legitimate to examine the other constitutional positions and whether they should remain elected or not. Whether or not the county wants to make a change, it has been a long time since any of these topics were discussed, and it is reasonable to take a look at them every so often since there are other options available to us.
The problem is these are complicated topics with a lot of unknowns. I just wrote several paragraphs about this topic and haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of all the issues involved, nor all the arguments on both sides. Specific to law enforcement, there would be costs involved to create a police department, perhaps significant costs. The state funding formulas for sheriff’s deputies are different than for police officers. There would be additional command staff needed, cars would need to be repainted and new real estate procured. There could also be some savings by efficiencies that are gained by the main agency being part of the county department. At this juncture, the Board of Supervisors has had absolutely no public discussion and no analysis of any of those logistical issues. The sheriff’s office press release cited a number from an internal analysis, which I have not yet seen. Regardless, on a topic like this, I would want to bring in a third party with law enforcement expertise to help determine what a split of assets and functions would look like and what the costs of those things would be.
Before we ask citizens to weigh in on such a complex topic, the Board of Supervisors should do its homework and have answers to these questions. After discussing this with our staff this week, I’m not convinced a comprehensive analysis can be done in time for the November election this year. I think it is backwards for the Board of Supervisors to ask citizens to vote first and get the facts later. The public deserves all the facts before we ask them to make a decision.
In addition, as I indicated, there are pros and cons to this form of government and to the others that are possible. We need a good, rational community discussion about those. It is very difficult to have that in a compressed timeline, especially in a presidential election year.
So, for these reasons, I will oppose a motion to place a question on the ballot to create a police department. Instead, I will ask my colleagues to direct county staff to undertake a comprehensive study of all these issues (hopefully with the sheriff’s cooperation), so that we can then decide if this is a question that should be on the ballot in the future. Then the public will have had time to follow all the dialogue, read the reports and analysis, and have a good understanding of the issues.
Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau, a Republican, has represented the Dulles District since 2012. This piece was excerpted from a post on his public Facebook page.