Should Ramsey County voters have the chance to vote on whether their sheriff is appointed or elected?

They'll get their say tonight at the first of four public hearings on the question.

The county Charter Commission is considering whether to put the question on a ballot in November. The proposal would eliminate the elected office of sheriff in January 2011 and allow the county manager to appoint a sheriff to a four-year term. The appointment would need the County Board's approval.

"Why do we have appointed police chiefs and elected sheriffs? This is what has always gone on," said Mike Fratto, the commission's chairman. "The real question is, 'Is there a need for a change?'"

He declined to share his opinion but said it's important to gauge public interest. He said the issue has popped up time and again over the past 15 years.

The public hearings will give charter commission members an idea of whether to push for the ballot question. Fratto said the commission would probably decide in May.

Proponents say the county's top law enforcement official should be appointed just as most city police chiefs are, in an effort to get politics out of a process that has sheriffs campaigning and asking for political contributions.

There's a problem with that, though, because the county manager is appointed, said Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

"The more layers of appointment you put into the process, the more detached law-enforcement officers get from the public," he said.

Plus, he said, nearly every other county in the country elects a sheriff.

"I think it's always good for the public to have a chance to weigh in on their structure of government," Fletcher said. But he's confident people won't want to give up their right to vote for the position.

To get on the ballot, the proposal would need at least nine votes from the 17-member commission; to go into effect, it would need to be approved by 51 percent of the voters in the referendum.

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542