Denver's sheriff is exiting Oct. 14, and 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 Mayor Michael Hancock’s search for a new overseer of the city's jails.
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who presented a draft of the proposed amendment to the City Council’s charter review committee on Monday, said it’s the right time to make the transition, given Sheriff Patrick Firman’s recent resignation and what she’s called years of failed reforms at the Sheriff’s Department.
If her amendment gets the support of other City Council members, the earliest that voters would be asked to approve it would be the November 2020 election, according to the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
Exactly when Hancock will pick a long-term replacement for the sheriff is still a question.
But a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office said that CdeBaca’s proposal “will not in any way interfere with that process.”
“The mayor fully intends to appoint a new sheriff as soon as possible following a thorough search for the right candidate for the job,” Hancock spokesman Michael Strott said in an email.
Fran Gomez, the department’s professional standards director, is set to take over as interim sheriff when Firman steps down this month.
At a press conference following the announcement that Firman would resign, Denver Department of Public Safety Executive Director Troy Riggs said “there’s a lot of potential issues” with making the sheriff an elected post but didn’t elaborate.
Under the city's current structure, Riggs oversees the city's police, fire and sheriff's departments, all led by appointed officials. The Denver Sheriff Department runs two city jails, transports inmates and provides security for Denver courts and Denver Health.
Strott said the Mayor’s office is still assessing CdeBaca’s proposal, but “our initial thought is Denver doesn’t need more politicians.”
“Our public safety agencies are led by a police chief, a fire chief and a sheriff. It seems unnecessary to elect one of them,” Strott said.
CdeBaca and her staff say the change is an important step to allow the public to hold the sheriff accountable.
The proposal would give the elected sheriff more authority to hire and fire staff and make changes within the department; he or she would also be able to appoint an undersheriff and executive-level managers within the agency that are now chosen by the mayor.
Denver's police and fire departments would still be overseen by the Department of Public Safety under the proposal.
Broomfield is the only other Colorado county that doesn’t have an elected Sheriff. In Broomfield, there is no sheriff’s department; the jail and court security are overseen by the police department, led by the city manager-appointed police chief, according to a memo produced by CdeBaca’s staff.
The Denver sheriff was an elected position for years in the early 1900s after Denver became a combined city and county government, the memo says. But that system evolved, and Mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton, who served his first term in the 1920s, led the push to eliminate the elected sheriff and implement the system that’s in place today, according to the memo.
Benjamin Stapleton’s history as a Ku Klux Klan member became a flashpoint this year when some residents of the Denver neighborhood that’s named after him campaigned to nix the title. They argued Stapleton’s historic ties with a racist institution don't match the neighborhood’s values today. But the majority of property and business owners voted in favor of keeping the name in an election held by a local community association this summer.
Benjamin Stapleton’s association with the mayor-appointed sheriff system is one reason CdeBaca wants to change the charter, she told fellow council members at the charter review committee meeting.
She and her staff have also cited millions of taxpayer dollars that the city has spent during the tenures of the last two sheriffs to try improve the department.
“We’ve had eight years of reform, thrown a lot of money at it, and not a lot of change,” she said on Monday. “So I think that it’s timely that we address that.”
The mayor appointed Firman, a longtime Illinois corrections chief, in 2015, hoping he could reform an embattled department that cost Denver millions in payouts for misconduct cases.
Hancock has credited him with a slew of gains, including advances in employee training, better policies and procedures for use-of-force, and a new citizen advisory board.
But the sheriff has also come under fire as legal troubles have continued over conditions at the jail, employees have racked up overtime costs, delays in bond processing have kept people behind bars, and the Denver Auditor's Office has reported shortfalls in correctional management.
The Denver Sheriff Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #27 has in the past pushed to amend the charter to make the sheriff an elected position, said Mike Britton, vice president of the local sheriff’s deputies union.
“We can’t keep doing business like we are now,” Britton said. “If you want change, you gotta go out and make change for yourself. This is the best and the most viable way of making change within the city and county of Denver and the Sheriff’s Department.”
The union increased its dues last year to try and to collect signatures to petition the charter change onto the ballot, Britton said. The FOP has accused the Mayor’s Office of thwarting that effort — a claim that’s now among the union-busting allegations that the organization sued the city over in federal court last year. The lawsuit alleges that the city incorrectly deducted union dues from deputies’ pay checks on purpose to hinder the campaign, The Denver Post reported.
The charter review committee is set to discuss CdeBaca's proposal at its Oct. 14 meeting. It could eventually refer the amendment to the Finance & Governance Committee, which would then have the ability to advance the proposal to the full council for referral to the November 2020 ballot.