State Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Jonesboro, reminded his 500-plus Facebook friends over the weekend about the absurdity of Arkansas law’s requirement that county officials stand for election every two years. Because Wilkins is term-limited, he won’t be able to do anything about it, but someone should.
Wilkins was referring specifically to Craighead Sheriff Marty Boyd’s announcement for re-election, barely 13 months after taking office. He’s not the only one; three other Craighead County officials took office for the first time last year and yet already must stand for re-election.
That’s unusual in Arkansas. There isn’t much turnover among the eight or nine non-judicial county officers that we elect. For one thing, we don’t pay them very well. When one gets an opponent, the cost of the filing fee and campaign can be greater than the annual salary, and even the Koch brothers don’t contribute much to these campaigns.
Of our elected officials, only the coroner and surveyor are not usually full-time, but we generally want all nine to have some special skills and knowledge. That’s especially important for the sheriff, who is the chief law enforcement officer for the county and needs to meet the state’s minimum training standards.
Yet we require these people to stand for election every other year. It’s no wonder that these positions don’t tend to draw many candidates. (Sheriff is sometimes an exception; there’s a special attraction in the power to carry a gun and a badge.)
The Legislature hasn’t shown much interest in this issue. Instead, our lawmakers have devoted most of their allowed three ballot issues every other year to efforts at social engineering such as the silly “constitutional right to hunt, fish, trap and harvest wildlife” in 2010.
That same year the Arkansas Sheriffs Association pushed an initiative that would have given 4-year terms to all county officials and also to constables, but the effort fell short. Two years earlier the sheriffs had a proposal that would have extended just their own terms, and they couldn’t get enough signatures to make the ballot.
The closest any similar proposal has come was in 1986 when an initiative that would have given 4-year terms to county officials and justices of the peace made the ballot. But it lost by 13,500 votes.
Things have changed since then. The realization of a 2-party system has virtually eliminated the rule that “winning the primary is tantamount to winning election.” If there is a race for a county office, it’s likely to be in the general election, which extends the campaign from about March 1 till early November. The winner then has less than two months to prepare for office.
Let’s not forget that these elections also have an impact on the people who work in each department headed by a county official. Under such circumstances they have little job security, which doesn’t help in maintaining stability in the office.
Arkansas passed a badly needed reform of county government in 1975 in Amendment 55, and that reform greatly reduced the corruption that had been rife in so many counties under an archaic fee system. Almost 40 years later, it’s time for some refinement.
Amendment 55 made county government more efficient, but confusing terminology and the 2-year terms were left the same. Each county has an administrator who is called a county judge but who isn’t a judge. And the legislative body is called the quorum court on which sit 9-15 justices of the peace. But it isn’t a court, and they aren’t justices.
Worse, the county judge has little authority over the other elected officials so each department head is responsible to no one between elections. (The quorum court can apply some pressure through appropriations.) According to the National Association of Counties, few states have as many elected county department heads as Arkansas. In fact, at no other level of government do we elect so many department heads.
No other state uses the term quorum court for its county legislature, and only one other state, Kentucky, calls its county administrator a judge.
The refinement should reduce the number of elected officials. Do we really need to elect more than two, considering that much larger cities elect only three? Make those department heads answer to the county administrator.
Whatever county officials we elect should have 4-year terms. Limit the number of terms if necessary to make this happen, but give them a chance to do their jobs.
Members of the county legislature should be kept at 2-year terms. They are part-time and under representative government should be close to the people.
A county official’s proposal could be on the ballot this year because the attorney general’s office has approved the wording of one submitted by a Pine Bluff man, David Dinwiddie. It would give four-year terms to all county officials as well as justices of the peace and constables.
But Dinwiddie, a Libertarian who ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2012 and announced first for lieutenant governor, then land commissioner this year, is not doing anything to gather the 78,000-plus citizens’ signatures needed to get the proposal on the ballot.
The Arkansas Association of Counties should take the initiative to get a proposal on the ballot in 2016.
• • •
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.