Is Kent County sheriff a full time job? Often, they have another gig

Is Kent County sheriff a full time job? Often, they have another gig
The Kent County Levy Court offices in Dover. 

For people trying to make spending cash or just make ends meet, working a side gig is common. Turns out, some elected officials do it too.

Take the Kent County sheriff position, where working another job is somewhat of a tradition.

Harrington City Manager Norman Barlow, a former police chief, has announced his candidacy in the November Kent sheriff election. He was recently appointed to his city manager post, and says he plans to keep the job if elected sheriff.

This is nothing new when it comes to the sheriff post. For example, Norman Wood, who was elected Kent sheriff in 2010, simultaneously worked as a lieutenant for the Smyrna Police Department, according to a 2014 News Journal article. After he was named chief in Smyrna, though, he declined to run for sheriff again, telling the News Journal, “I just can’t devote the time to the duties of sheriff while chief.”

Sitting Sheriff Brian Lewis, who is running for reelection against Barlow and Will McVay this year, also works two jobs. After Lewis was elected in 2018, he kept working full time for the Department of Corrections until 2020, a spokesman there confirmed. He still has another job in addition to sheriff, according to Kent County spokeswoman Kelly Pitts.

There does not seem to be any rule against this. Kent County employees with multiple jobs have their pay reduced if they miss time from work to do another job. But that’s not the case with the sheriff, Pitts said in an email, because that position is elected and not considered an employee. As to whether the county considers the sheriff to be a full time job, Pitts said there is no calculation of full time equivalency.

“Elected officials are salaried and their hours aren’t tracked,” she wrote.

County employees who want to do a similar balancing act are more restricted, although even there the wording is broad. Rules on dual employment state that for all full time employees, their county job is to be their “primary occupation.” Pitts wrote that it’s not uncommon for employees to have another job.

However, a line in Kent County’s code of ethics, which applies to elected officials and employees alike, could be interpreted as discouraging elected officials from holding two jobs. It’s against the rules for them to engage in financial enterprises that are “in substantial conflict with the proper performance of their duties in the public interest.”

Later, the ethics code says officials cannot accept other employment that may, among other things, “impede government efficiency or economy.”

Whether the sheriff holding another full time job is a “substantial conflict” or causes the kind of inefficiency these guidelines discuss is, of course, open to interpretation, and apparently the Kent County government has not interpreted it that way for years.

Unlike in Maryland, where county sheriffs serve as a police force and even cover law enforcement duties for small towns, the sheriff’s job in Kent County is mainly administrative. Duties include serving legal notices like subpoenas and summonses, and overseeing sales of real estate when owners don’t pay taxes or fees or when they go into foreclosure.

Harrington Mayor Duane E. Bivans, Sen. Tom Carper, and City Manager Norman Barlow at an event this month promoting a rail project in the city. Carper's red Tesla makes a cameo appearance in the background. 

Barlow did not respond to an offer to comment for this article. Lewis also did not respond to a request for comment.

In a previous interview with the Independent about his candidacy, Barlow said, “I know I can do both (jobs) effectively.” He said he consulted with the city’s legal department before making his decision, and they cleared him to run.

“That fact that it’s not illegal, you could look at that and also say, that’s a problem right there,” said Jack Guerin, an anti-corruption activist in Delaware. He has publicly scrutinized state officials who work dual jobs, but the cases he has focused on involve lawmakers he sees as having a conflict of interest with their other job.

A number of state lawmakers work another job, but their General Assembly duties are not full time.

Guerin did not say, however, that the situation in Kent County was a case of corruption.

“I think it comes back to the issue of precedence,” he said. “I mean, nobody’s ever, I assume, mentioned that the city manager was (intended to be) a part time job, or that the sheriff was a part time job.”

It may or may not be full time, but the pay is not what anyone would call excessive. Pitts said the salary is $34,091 a year. If that were a full time wage, it would come out to about $16.39 an hour, meaning sheriffs could make more money working at a local chicken plant. Elected officials also get no vacation or sick leave, Pitts wrote.

Terry Pepper, Kent County Levy Court president, did not comment on whether the county government views the sheriff as a full time position, or whether it’s a good idea for the sheriff to work two jobs.

A job with a ‘Wild West’ history

Joe Conaway, former Sussex County administrator and Bridgeville Commission president, has been involved in state politics for decades. He remembers a time before the sheriff had a fixed salary, when creative use of the rules made it a lucrative position. In the early 1970s, he recalled, sheriffs actually ended up being the highest paid elected officials.

For one thing, they got a share of the estate sales. For another, they made the most out of mileage compensation. If they had 10 papers to serve in Greenwood, for example, they would make one trip and count it as 10 separate trips for mileage, Conaway said. “And that was accepted practice.”

He estimated sheriffs made over $100,000 a year, which in the 70s was “big time dollars.”

Conoway linked that situation to a law limiting sheriffs to serving one term. But he recalled there was a way around that, too. Upon one sheriff’s “retirement,” the deputy sheriff ran for the seat and won. A few years later, the previous sheriff ran again, won, and appointed his former deputy again.

“It was the Wild West days all over again,” Conaway said.

State laws have since been adjusted to fix all that, he said, and sheriffs can run for reelection.

Conaway said he’s long argued that jobs like the sheriff, the register of wills, recorder of deeds and others don’t need to be elected positions in a modern county government, and some of them aren’t needed at all because appointed officials take care of the essential duties. Similar jobs like comptroller have already been eliminated, he said.

It’s not just Delaware, of course, that has seen a “Wild West” of dipping into the public coffers, of course. David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, said New Jersey politicians used to commonly double dip even to the point of holding two elected positions at once. A party boss, for example, might have been mayor of a city and state senator at the same time.  

“The legislature finally passed a law against it,” he said.

The other side of the coin

Whether the Kent sheriff should be a full time job is one question. Whether someone can be a city manager and the sheriff is another.

Harrington Mayor Duane E. Bivans responded cautiously to questions about Barlow’s candidacy. He said it was not a concern yet, because Barlow hasn’t won the election.

If Barlow is successful in his bid, Bivans said, they would have to see how it would play out. He compared reacting before then to the typical Delaware response to snow: People going crazy about a forecast and rushing to the store, and then it just rains.

Conaway, the former president of the Bridgeville Commission, said in that position he would have been uncomfortable with the idea of the town manager also serving as county sheriff.

“The town manager’s job is a tough job,” he said, and it’s a position where you have to be available 24/7.  

“I would be very uncomfortable that the citizens of Bridgeville, for example, would not be getting all the services that they need from the person who is in fact supposed to run the town on a daily basis,” he said.

In addition to the time commitment, others raised questions about the wisdom of a city manager getting into elected politics.

“There’s … expectation that a city manager is going to simply bring his or her expertise to bear without consideration of partisanship, and most city managers in most places are really careful to avoid being seen in a partisan position,” Redlawsk said. “So that’s the part that surprises me.”  

Martha Perego is director of member services and ethics for the International City/County Management Association, which has around 13,000 members.

“It’s incompatible for somebody who is appointed to serve as a city manager to also hold an elected office,” Perego said. “So it’s a clear violation of our ethical standards.” (Barlow is not a member of the association.)

Perego said city managers should be nonpartisan, because they will have to work for anyone who is elected to the city council, and they will have to work with elected officials on behalf of the city.

“If they’re actively engaged in party politics, or they’re running for elected office, then they’re not really independent, objective professionals working on behalf of their local government.”

Some of the association’s members, she said, might hold down a small consulting business on the side with permission from their Council. “It has to be small, because their primary employment is as a city manager. You owe them 100 percent of your attention, and 100 percent of your time.”

It’s not a 9-5 job, she said. “Stuff happens after hours, you’ve got meetings, you could be on call for emergencies.”

Employed by voters

Regardless of what the law allows, voters can weigh in when it comes to the sheriff position – whether the person working two jobs is Lewis, Barlow or someone else.

Hypothetically, "You could argue if the voters want to elect somebody to a full time job, who still has a full time job and doesn’t intend to get rid of it, then the voters can do whatever they want,” Redlawsk said. “... Voters can always decide whether they like it or not. I mean, that’s obviously all in theory. But I expect it falls through a lot of cracks.”  

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