Choice of new sheriff must reflect job that has changed

The Clark County Commission meeting was packed with police officers in uniform and plainclothes and plenty of civilians, too.

They had come to support Sheriff Doug Gillespie’s effort to win a vote to increase funding for more cops, but instead they witnessed something truly rare in Southern Nevada: a rejection of a request by the community’s top lawman.

Although he’s technically only the sheriff of Clark County, Gillespie holds a position that has long been recognized as one of the most powerful political offices in the state. For generations our sheriff ranked not far below Nevada’s governor when it came to wielding clout and getting things done. He not only enforced the law, but his word also carried the weight of law.

But no more.

That was more than evident on Tuesday when the commission rejected two proposals to increase the sales tax to fund the hiring of additional officers. Although commissioners were quick to say their opposition to the increase wasn’t intended to show a lack of support for law enforcement, it couldn’t have been read that way inside Metro.

Several were, in fact, showing a lack of blind support for law enforcement. The fact seven commissioners couldn’t set aside their polemics and work together to find a solution that moved Gillespie and his department forward is no great victory. In fact, it’s more than disconcerting.

For all his strengths as a cop, it only begs the obvious to note that Gillespie isn’t much of a political player. He has been consistently rebuffed by members of the commission and has yet to finesse even a partial victory. It didn’t help matters that he entered the debate as a lame duck, having announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Gillespie’s argument that additional dollars were needed to sew up a $30 million budget shortfall rang hollow with $124 million sitting in an account already earmarked for increased officers. The numbers were against him, and the politics appeared out of his reach.

One proposal would have increased the county’s 8.1 percent sales tax by 0.15 percentage points to 8.25 percent. It had no chance to pass. Commissioner Susan Brager said she couldn’t support it, but she offered what appeared to be a reasonable compromise: a .075-percentage point increase.

The half-a-loaf approach might make sense in the real world, where children and adults are compelled to cooperate and compromise every day. But Brager’s plan was gutted before her eyes by Commissioner Tom Collins, whose man crush on the police union and Metro appears to know no bounds.

Instead of possibly securing half a loaf, the cops wound up without a crust when both offerings were rejected.

And the clout of the sheriff’s office shrunk before everyone’s eyes. Time was county commissioners wouldn’t have dared ride hard against sheriffs Ralph Lamb or John Moran. But that was many years ago when the economy was booming, the sheriff’s clout was mighty, and his word was largely unquestioned.

Those good old, bad old days are part of the community’s past and will never come again. The police department has evolved considerably in recent years and is more professional than at any moment in its history.

In challenging economic times, it’s more important than ever that the sheriff not only embrace the political nature of his duty but also be comfortable working the halls of power. While no one can reasonably doubt Gillespie’s professional devotion, he always sounds like he has a toothache when he talks politics. With the possible exception of dealing with reporters, I would bet it’s his least favorite part of the job.

But that’s another reason why it’s important for our community to have a competitive sheriff’s race in 2014. The job has changed, and its duties have become increasingly complex.

We need a healthy and competitive debate between sheriff candidates who will be asking for the community’s support and confidence.

Not to mention enough votes from the County Commission.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.