Changing the police and jail authority from an elected sheriff to appointed officials responsible to county government is an important step for Harford County. The question should be decided by the voters in public referendum.
That's why the Harford County Council needs to act by next Thursday to approve a referendum on these issues. Getting the wording right is important, but so is clear action to place this basic policy decision before the public.
Both County Executive Eileen Rehrmann and Sheriff Robert Comes have signaled consent, albeit grudging, to a referendum on the controversial matter. Mrs. Rehrmann first asked the council to directly transfer the powers to her office in a single omnibus bill, which she later withdrew after public demands for a voice in the decision.
Mr. Comes wants to keep things as they are, but certainly prefers a voters' choice to the council's choice.
Both politicians plan to run for re-election in November 1994, when the referendum would likely be held. A sheriff will be elected then, even if voters decide he will provide only legal service and courthouse security duties.
Discussion of the topic has been long and hard. Differences are philosophical and practical, as well as political. The two sides are $1 million apart on the estimated cost of the initial transfer. The current deterioration of debate into mudslinging and personality attacks has not advanced the issues.
The strong belief that voters should directly decide this important issue does not mean that they should also directly elect the chief law enforcement officer in Harford County.
There are strong arguments against continuing the existing system, including the lack of civil service protection for deputies and the advisability of having an appointed professional to run the organization.
Harford remains the only metro county with a charter government where the sheriff retains full powers, the others having appointed police chiefs.
The county executive and the council could have chosen to separate the jail and the police transfer issues. Mrs. Rehrmann chose not to ask for jail authority alone, a route taken in other counties without referendum. Councilman Philip Barker's suggestion to separate the two questions on the ballot would provide more reasonable choice than an all-or-nothing question.
Nine bills on this subject remain for council consideration. The council should make the choice without further delay and authorize a referendum.