Monday marked the first time Denver City Council members publicly weighed Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s proposal to amend the city charter and allow voters to elect the county’s sheriff — a policy widespread throughout the state.
Denver’s mayor is currently tasked with selecting the sheriff, and CdeBaca presented her plan to change that during the council’s newly created Charter Committee meeting at the Denver City and County Building.
“The autonomy in the sheriff’s department is actually perceived — it’s not real — because the sheriff is appointed, and under an appointee in the Department of [Public] Safety,” she said.
“Right now, we’re getting a new sheriff and we have no idea what’s happening,” CdeBaca said. “The community has no role, no input in who’s being selected, how they’re being selected, what the qualifications are, what level of experience or reforms they’ve had, and that’s incredibly problematic.”
A Denver city councilwoman will unveil a proposal next week to change the city charter so that the sheriff is elected — not appointed — to the post.
The councilwoman’s proposed change follows the city’s announcement of Sheriff Patrick Firman's resignation, effective Oct. 14. He is replaced in the interim by the department’s professional standards director, Fran Gomez — now the city’s first female sheriff — while the search is on for Firman’s replacement.
Firman headed the Denver jail system for four years before abruptly stepping down after losing the confidence of city leaders, some of his own employees and community activists.
During public comment in Monday’s meeting, Deputy Sheriff and President of Denver Sheriff Lodge 27 Michael Jackson said he and the 700 deputies he represents side with CdeBaca.
“We believe that if the position was elected, you would get the top-notch people,” he said. But once qualified candidates “realize they have no control over the sheriff’s department,” they drop out of the running — a pattern he’s witnessed “pretty much [his] whole career.”
“And that’s when you end up with the Firmans," he said. "That’s how you end up with the new appointee person."
Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman is stepping down after four years in the position overseeing the city's jails.
Councilwoman Robin Kniech, the only councilmember who submitted written questions to CdeBaca in advance of the meeting, said she agreed there were “problems that need addressing,” but wasn’t convinced autonomy was the answer.
“Is autonomy the solution, or does it make the problems worse?” she asked.
“I don’t know that anything inherent in the structure of autonomy makes inmates safer,” she said, pointing to San Francisco as an example, where a sheriff is elected but officials are currently working to rein back the position’s independence.
Councilman Kevin Flynn said he was “very open” to the idea of an elected sheriff, but also had “a lot of concerns.”
“I’m not so sure it’s the system that’s not working as opposed to the people in it,” he said.
“I’m not compelled yet to accept that having an elected sheriff provides more accountability than having an appointed one. The mayor can get rid of a sheriff at the drop of a hat; the voters can’t,” he said, acknowledging that although a recall is possible, it would be very difficult.
Flynn also worried that restricting sheriff candidates to only Denver residents could lead to a less qualified pool of people, referring to existing language in the charter that both CdeBaca and her Chief of Staff Lisa Calderón said should be part of the community conversation.
Mayor Michael Hancock’s office said in a written statement to Denver TV station KMGH-Denver7 that it has not received a proposal, but maintained the position that “public safety agencies are led by a police chief, a fire chief and a sheriff, and it seems unnecessary to elect one of them.”
“Making the difficult and important job of managing our jails even more difficult by politicizing the office instead of focusing on good management could lead to dysfunction,” the email statement said.
The next charter meeting is slated for Oct. 28, when CdeBaca and Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer will bring forward at least two — and potentially three — new charter amendment proposals.
Sawyer will seek to establish council oversight and approval of the 10 specific positions that are mayoral appointees, while CdeBaca’s proposal would make Denver’s independent monitor elected rather than appointed.
“Independent should mean independent,” CdeBaca said, “and right now that’s not the case.”
If support is gained from other councilmembers, charter amendment proposals would appear on the November 2020 ballot and be left to Denver voters to decide.
A Denver city councilwoman’s proposal to change the city charter to make the sheriff an elected official won’t get in the way of the Mayor Michael Hancock’s search for a new top lawman.