The sheriff’s race in Lincoln County’s Sept. 10 primary election is proving to be one of the most contentious in years. There’s debate over budget issues, squad car use, office/jail space – even the merits of a K9 search/rescue unit. It’s no secret that there’s divisiveness in the department itself.
But, in interviews, we find that incumbent Tom Koth and challenger Paul Proulx solidly agree on at least one point – the new four-year term for Wisconsin sheriffs. Whoever the winner in November’s general election, he will start a four-year term. Historically, the term has been two years in Wisconsin, and our state was one of the few to hold on to a two-year term so long.
Two-year terms for sheriffs smack of the good old boy tradition. To a degree, they worked for many years. The county had a sheriff and an undersheriff and, traditionally, they took turns running for office. In some counties, the sheriff’s wife was the undersheriff. She’d run for the sheriff’s post, get elected and serve in title only. In some cases, she was the jail cook. Meanwhile, her husband, in effect, had a four-year term – or more.
But things changed. The undersheriff post was abolished, with civil service chief deputies taking over. Duties for the sheriff expanded. There were more bad people, and jails grew. The public demanded, and received, more attention. In Lincoln County, for instance, around the clock road patrols started, at the north and south ends of the county. Sheriffs became involved in civic, school and other public relations programs that pushed their duties past law enforcement.
Meanwhile, re-election, or the hope for it, loomed. Hardly was a good sheriff in office, trying to make changes, deal with building needs, contend with state and federal mandates and meet other challenges, than he had to think politics. Both Lincoln County candidates this year have said that two years is not enough time in which to initiate or strengthen programs.
There’s effort in the state legislature to expand other county office terms to four years. That certainly deserves consideration.
Tom Koth and Paul Proulx both have some good approaches to law enforcement and department administration. They should be able to meet their goals, and the new four-year term will be a big boost to that end.