Who gets to decide if there’s a new sheriff in town?

It seems the voters could determine that, but, at the very least, incumbents should not get one set of rules while challengers are required to meet another set. That’s what’s happening in Cook County now.

As early voting for the June 28 primary is underway, people taking Democratic ballots in Cook County might want to consider whether justice is being served in the sheriff’s race.

It hasn’t received much attention, but there are a couple of questions the contest raises that deserve more thought.

What qualifies someone to be sheriff? And who should be making that determination?

Here’s the backstory summary: The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association urged the addition of a provision to the omnibus criminal justice law enacted in 2021, requiring that sheriff’s candidates be certified law enforcement officers, the Chicago Tribune reported, unless they were incumbents when the law was approved.

Sheriff Tom Dart, who succeeded his former boss, Mike Sheahan, in the job in 2006, has been doing the job for years without being a certified law enforcement officer. He was Sheahan’s chief of staff for three years before being elected sheriff. Dart was certified late last year, though he didn’t need to be under the new provision.

But despite his own history, Dart’s campaign officially objected to the candidacy of Carmen Navarro Gercone because, he contends, she does not have proper law enforcement certification. Navarro Gercone does, however, have sheriff’s office experience. She rose to first assistant executive director in the sheriff’s office, working for Dart, and overseeing 1,300 employees in evictions, operations and courthouse security. Prior to that, she worked as a sheriff’s office sergeant, lieutenant and as an assistant chief, the Tribune reported.

So, is she qualified? It seems to me she is, having also gained experience now as a top official in the Cook County circuit court clerk’s office, but she was ruled off the ballot as of this writing. She is appealing the ruling in, of all places, Cook County circuit court.

Reading about this controversy reminded me of former Lake County Coroner Barbara Richardson, who died earlier this year at age 93. Republican Richardson won election for five consecutive terms. She worked as a deputy in the office prior to that.

She was a beloved public official in Lake County. Yet, as coroner, she never performed an autopsy. She wasn’t trained to do so. Pathologists in her office performed the autopsies. Did that make her unqualified? Voters in Lake County repeatedly thought she was more than up to the job.

And who should get to decide these questions when challenges are raised? Not the people who did in this case. All of them are Cook County employees whose offices interact and intertwine on an ongoing basis.

When Dart objected to his former employee running against him, a county electoral board was convened to hear the case and its members voted 2-1 to boot Navarro Gercone.

Who were those three people? Designees of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough and Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez. Conflict anyone?

Dart’s and Foxx’s offices work together daily. Martinez hired Navarrao Gercone and has endorsed her. If this isn’t a conflict of interest, I don’t know what would be.

Ironically, Dart’s people objected to Martinez’s office being part of the electoral board, but they saw no conflict with Foxx’s office being involved. Foxx’s designee and Yarbrough’s designee are the ones who voted to remove Dart’s challenger.

This sort of situation occurs frequently and repeatedly in down-ballot races in Illinois. Throughout the suburbs and various local governments, if a trustee’s or mayoral candidate’s qualifications or signatures to run get challenged, it’s most often other local officials who know and work with the incumbents who are making the decisions about who gets to run.

Again, it’s a clear conflict and it ought to be changed across the board. More impartial electoral boards, disconnected from the people in office, can and should be created to handle these candidate challenges.

Navarro Gercone, by the way, has a certification from the FBI National Academy. Dart got the certification he legally does not need more than a decade into running the office.

Who’s qualified? Seems the voters could determine that, but, at the very least, incumbents should not get one set of rules while challengers are required to meet another set.

That seems like a pretty commonsense definition of justice, doesn’t it?

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for ethical and efficient government.

This article originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business.