Don’t quit early, sheriff; do voters a favor and finish your term

Paul Pastor’s announcement that he’s retiring as Pierce County sheriff hardly rates as bombshell news. At age 70, he’s at the stage when the mind turns to traveling with one’s spouse and writing down one’s thoughts and life experiences. And the philosopher-sheriff, with three degrees from Yale University to go with an honorable 35-year public safety career, has a lot to say, including adding his voice to national law enforcement initiatives.

Appointed to the post in 2000, Pastor is the longest-serving sheriff in county history and has nothing left to prove.

The only part of his departure that may come as a surprise is the timing of it — a premature exit that, in our opinion, isn’t in voters’ best interests.

Pastor plans to hang up his uniform in January or February rather than wait until his term expires at the end of 2020. He says there’s no illness or other urgent factor driving the decision; he’s just ready for the next chapter, and wants the county to get ready.

“I am term limited; it was going to happen anyway,” he told us last week. “I chose to make it happen a little sooner than later.”

With all due respect to a lawman who’s served with dignity and minimal controversy, we wish Pastor would reconsider and complete the final term voters entrusted to him.

Whoever is appointed by the Pierce County Council to fill the vacancy will have the inside track in the sheriff election a year from now. Incumbency is a formidable advantage, even for a short-term office holder. And the jockeying for position is well under way.

Pierce County residents are overdue for the kind of wide-open competition they expected 12 years ago when they voted to make their chief law enforcement officer directly accountable to them. That 2007 county charter amendment, which turned the sheriff into an elected, nonpartisan position with a limit of three consecutive four-year terms, was approved with more than a 75 percent “yes” vote.

Pastor then coasted to three easy victories in 2008, 2012 and 2016; he didn’t even draw an opponent in 2012 and 2016. Isn’t it about time we see what a real sheriff’s election looks like?

For a cautionary example of what can happen when an elected official quits early, rewind 10 years.

Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne announced in February 2009 that he would step down before the end of his term, and that he was promoting Mark Lindquist to chief criminal deputy. This set the stage for the council to appoint Lindquist prosecutor seven months later. The interim move gave Lindquist a head start on fundraising and campaigning for the 2010 election, which he won handily — and then went on to serve two tumultuous terms.

Horne acknowledged what he was up to: Lindquist was his handpicked successor and therefore entitled to certain advantages. To which we responded at the time: “Call us idealistic, but we still have the crazy notion that elections ought to be something more than confirmations and that elected officials should be, you know, elected.”

Pastor, by contrast, says he won’t try to push an heir apparent to the council. “I’m not anointing anyone,” he told us. “I’m not doing this to hand off to anybody; I’m doing it as a bit of a wakeup for those who might consider running.”

He’ll probably feel pressure from stakeholders such as the deputies union to endorse someone — if not publicly then behind the scenes. But even if he stays out of it completely, the County Council will have outsized influence in determining a frontrunner for next year’s sheriff’s election.

The best thing for local democracy would be for Pastor to finish his term. Those travel plans, written insights and national law enforcement projects aren’t going anywhere if he hangs tight another 10 months.