Cuyahoga County Sherrif's Department van
Cuyahoga County has the only appointed sheriff in the state. Some are calling for voters to once again hold elections for the job.

By Mark Puente, The Marshall Project

The revolving door of appointed sheriffs in Cuyahoga County continues after interim Sheriff Steven Hammett quit after only eight months — the sixth lawman to resign in the last 12 years. 

Critics blame the rampant turnover on voters passing a measure in 2009 that took away the elected sheriff and created layers of bureaucracy for the appointed leaders. Calls are increasing for the county to return to an elected sheriff. 

“This experiment has failed horribly,” Cuyahoga County Councilman Mike Gallagher told The Marshall Project – Cleveland about the appointed sheriff change. “I have yet to hear a logical argument on why not to go back to an elected sheriff. It is a classic case of insanity.”

Cuyahoga County is the only one of Ohio’s 88 counties with an appointed sheriff.

Sheriffs are the chief law enforcement officers in Ohio counties. Among other duties, Ohio law requires sheriffs to maintain courthouse security and jail operations, extradite and transport prisoners, and serve judicial papers. 

The three county executives since 2010 have all appointed individuals to roles similar to city safety directors. That employee oversees the sheriff. 

County Executive Chris Ronayne recently appointed Nailah Byrd to deputy chief of staff, responsible for developing and implementing the county’s long-term strategy for public safety and justice services.

Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association, called it appalling that Cuyahoga County has gone through so many appointed sheriffs. He said the 2009 charter reform stripped away the sheriff’s authority and gave the decision-making to the county executive and their staffers. The sheriff’s decisions have all been second-guessed by political appointees, he said. 

“They are not law enforcement professionals,” Cornwell said.

Gallagher is imploring the Cuyahoga County Council and Ronayne to return to an elected sheriff. The demand comes at a time when county leaders must decide on a hefty price tag and location for a new jail.

Every day since taking office on Jan. 1, Ronayne said he’s been asked whether he supports an elected or appointed sheriff. His first priority, he said, is to pick an interim sheriff before Hammett leaves Feb. 17. 

Ronayne said he will listen to the community and County Council deliberate on how to move forward with a sheriff. 

“Right now, I am not taking a position,” Ronayne said. “I have no problem listening to the voices. I want to listen to that dialogue.” 

Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell also said she is not taking a position on the sheriff issue. She said she stands with voters who amended the charter in 2009, but she is open to changes, if needed.

“I want to do my due diligence,” Conwell said.

Councilman Dale Miller doesn’t think returning to an elected sheriff is a good idea. He fears the move could complicate decisions. 

“We’re in a rough patch, but I think we can do better,” he said. “We should give the experiment more time to work.”

Corruption cases led to appointed sheriff system

A 2009 investigation by The Plain Dealer found the last elected sheriff, Gerald T. McFaul, used his 32-year tenure to enrich himself and reward family and friends. A state criminal investigation confirmed the findings.

After McFaul resigned, he was convicted of theft in office in 2010. He served a year of house arrest.

Meanwhile, an FBI corruption probe sent other Cuyahoga County officials to prison. Amid these scandals, voters in 2009 overwhelmingly approved a measure to overhaul county government. It eliminated the countywide offices of the auditor, recorder and sheriff, but retained an elected prosecutor.

Former Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, who co-authored the charter amendment, said the appointed sheriff is still better than an elected position because it provides checks and balances and would prevent misdeeds like the ones McFaul committed.

“Bad apples and bad sheriffs don’t mean the system is wrong,” Akers said. “John Q. Public doesn’t know if a person is qualified to be sheriff when they vote. An elected sheriff is not going to improve the system.” 

Michael O’Malley, the current Cuyahoga County prosecutor, served as chief deputy and political lieutenant to Bill Mason, during his time as county prosecutor when voters passed the reform in 2009. Mason was also a co-author of the amendment.

O’Malley’s spokesperson said he served no role on the charter committee and has no regret about the 2009 changes.

“He does see a need for an elected sheriff,” spokesperson Lexi Bauer said. “Cuyahoga County needs stable, accountable leadership, and this current structure has not provided that.”

After conditions worsened in the county jail, the federal government deemed them “inhumane.” The facility dealt with “chronic overcrowding” and nine inmates died between June 2018 and July 2019, WEWS News 5 reported. 

As a result, voters approved an amendment giving the sheriff more autonomy in November 2019.

Highlights included requiring the County Council to approve the sheriff’s appointment. It also created a process to block the county executive from removing the sheriff without a public hearing and the backing of at least eight of 11 council members. 

That plan countered a competing proposal to restore the sheriff to an elected position.

Still, the reforms didn’t solve jail woes. In 2021, former Cuyahoga County Jail Director Ken Mills and nine other employees were convicted of “failing to safely, securely and lawfully house Cuyahoga County inmates.”

Speaking for himself and not the court, Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas Administrative and Presiding Judge Brendan Sheehan said 12 years of an appointed sheriff has not worked. 

“An elected sheriff is good for the county,” Sheehan said. “It would give people accountability in the jail.” 

Colin Sikon, vice president of Laborers Local Union 860, which represents more than 150 deputies, said the appointed sheriff process is “a little too incestuous. We had an overcorrection. We want the sheriff elected again.” 

Cliff Pinkney served as the appointed sheriff for more than four years under former Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.

The sheriff needs autonomy to prevent and fix problems in one of Ohio’s largest sheriff’s agencies without fear of political intervention, Pinkney said, adding: “I strongly believe the sheriff should be elected.”

Other whispers around the Cuyahoga County Justice Center and County Council center on whether a candidate of color could win a sheriff’s election.

Pinkney, the county’s first Black sheriff, said he doesn’t believe race will be an issue. “The county will be willing to elect a minority sheriff,” he said.

Sheriff Mike Chapman of the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia told The Marshall Project – Cleveland that appointed sheriffs are beholden to the political agenda of a county executive. He compared an appointed sheriff to a police chief.

“A police chief is more political because they have to tow the political line,” said Chapman, a vice president of Major County Sheriffs of America, which represents the 113 largest sheriff’s offices serving populations of 500,000 or more. “That is no different than an appointed sheriff.”

Voters, Chapman said, are best served by an elected sheriff.

“It should be up to the people to decide,” he said. “At least the people would have a voice in who they select.”

The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. Through a partnership with Signal Cleveland, The Marshall Project is weaving more resident voices into its reporting and building an understanding about how the justice system works — and doesn’t work — in Cleveland.