Ex-Sheriff John Green’s guilty plea on felony conspiracy charges this week should close the chapter — if not the book — on a tale of a corrupted elected office in the city.
It should, but it doesn’t.
Green spent 20 years presiding over an office primarily responsible for conducting sales on foreclosed and tax delinquent homes, transporting prisoners, and providing guards for courtrooms. The truth was, he handed over the reins of much of the sheriff sales work to a friend and crony in exchange for cash, hidden campaign donations, loans, and real estate. His partner in crime, James Davis, was convicted and is about to serve 10 years in prison for accepting those bribes.
Davis operated two companies that handled sheriff sales work and placed ads for those sales. His company billed nearly $7 million in excess fees — which would have been bad enough, but many of those dollars came out of the money owed to people who had lost their homes. Handling those sales was not the only duty that Green failed at. The history of financial mismanagement, badly kept books, and no accountability in the sheriff’s office under Green was stunning, even in a city not unfamiliar with financial shenanigans.
His successor, Jewell Williams, campaigned on a promise to clean up the office — and while he may have straightened out the books and the operations, his campaign for being elected to a third term is clouded by three complaints of sexual harassment; one while he was a state lawmaker (settled by the state) and two more as sheriff (one settled by the city and one making its way through the courts). Mayor Kenney has called for Williams to resign more than once, citing “multiple credible complaints.”
Obviously, we can’t eliminate every elected office based on the wrongdoing of its inhabitants. But the argument for eliminating the Sheriff’s Office as an elected office predates Green’s guilty pleas. Those arguments remain strong.
You can limit the potential damage of any one officeholder by imposing term limits. The mayor is limited to two terms. Why not every office in the city? If the Sheriff’s Office had term limits, John Green might have had to find another job in 1992 or in 1996, and the city might have had three different sheriffs before this year’s election. Green would not have been able to settle in for 20 years and build an empire whose operations were rarely held to scrutiny, until a scathing 2010 controller’s report that prompted Green’s resignation.
City Council is another office where term limits are advisable. In the last election, only two district incumbents were seriously challenged. This year’s election isn’t much different. And Councilmember Bobby Henon, under federal indictment, is running unchallenged.
In February, Allan Domb introduced legislation that would limit Council terms to three. It went nowhere. There are worthy arguments for unlimited terms in office: greater experience being an obvious one, but the drawbacks — opaque reigns impervious to scrutiny or accountability — outweigh these. Council is unqualified to have the last word on this issue. They should let the voters decide.