Jon Hess, Kent County Undersheriff
Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma
James Farris, 2012 Democratic candidate for Kent County Sheriff
GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- Earlier this year, Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma planned to retire and let his right-hand man, Jon Hess, run for the office, but a federal law has changed those plans -- and raised questions among opponents about what will happen in the future.
Stelma announced earlier this year his plans to retire, and Hess, his undersheriff, filed to run for the top job. But Hess' position as undersheriff falls under a 1930s federal law called the Hatch Act, which prohibits political activity by state or local supervisors who oversee the use of federal funds.
In order for Hess to run for sheriff, he would have had to resign as undersheriff. Hess would have also faced a challenge by Tim Lewis, the head of the deputies union and frequent opponent of sheriff's department leaders during contract negotiations.
Instead of retiring, Stelma announced his plans to run for re-election, and Hess dropped out of the race. So did Lewis.
But Stelma still hopes Hess will be able to replace him in the sheriff's office. In fact, Stelma's running again to ensure Hess gets the job.
"I want to make sure this community is well served, which means Undersheriff Hess should be the next sheriff," said Stelma Tuesday at a candidate forum Wednesday night at Gerald R. Ford Middle School in Grand Rapids. "That's my personal opinion that Undersheriff Hess is the most qualified candidate."
Democrat James Farris, who retired as a deputy chief of the Grand Rapids Police Department, is running against Stelma in the November 6 election. He does not think the sheriff should be allowed to choose his replacement.
"For close to 60 years, it has been one incumbent and then immediately after the undersheriff has been elected right hafter them," said Farris on Tuesday.
"Maybe new ideas and a different view" are needed, said Farris. "It may be something that's necessary."
The leaders of the sheriff's department could get around the Hatch Act if Stelma is re-elected, then decides to retire mid-term. Then the Kent County Commission could appoint Hess to finish the term, and he would be able to run for election in 2016 as the incumbent. WZZM 13's Phil Dawson asked Stelma if that was the plan.
"I don't have a crystal ball," answered Stelma. "We don't have a plan. We haven't talked about that."
Stelma was Kent County's undersheriff when he was elected to the department's top job in 2000.
Congress is considering an amendment to the Hatch Act to eliminate current restrictions that interfered with Hess' candidacy this year.