Sheriff removal is problematic

How do you remove a sheriff from office who just won’t leave?  

After Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson’s drunk driving crash in December there were calls for him to resign from state lawmakers and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.  

There were renewed calls for Hutchinson to resign last week after the FOX 9 Investigators revealed that, following his drunk driving crash, Hutchinson sent racist and homophobic text messages to his staff, allegedly created a hostile work environment, and went on a spending spree with his county-issued credit card.  

How to remove an elected official

Under state law, there is a process for the removal of elected county officials. But it’s complicated, arduous, and time has likely run out.    

Any voter can petition the county auditor for the removal of a county official for "malfeasance or nonfeasance in the performance of official duties," under Minnesota Chapter 351. 

The petition must be submitted to the county clerk 180 days before the election.  That six-month deadline passed in May. But state law allows the Chief Appellate Judge to extend any deadline for "good cause." The petition must also contain the names of 25 percent of the number of voters in the previous election.    

In 2018, Hutchinson narrowly defeated former Sheriff Rich Stanek with 264,511 votes (49.93 percent) to Stanek’s 262,182 (49.49 percent). A removal petition would need to have 131,673 signatures of registered Hennepin County voters.

There is an online petition to recall Sheriff Hutchinson, but it is not known how many signatures it has. And while state law allows the removal of an elected county official for "malfeasance or nonfeasance," it does not allow removal for "misfeasance."   

In other words, an elected official can be removed for legally unjustified and harmful acts (malfeasance) or a failure to act (nonfeasance), but not for lawful incompetence (misfeasance).  

The Chief Judge of the Appellate Courts determines whether a petition qualifies under state law, and then appoints a ‘Special Master’ to conduct a public hearing.    

A sheriff removed from office, once

There is only one known case of a sheriff being removed from office and it happened 83 years ago. 

In 1941, Governor Harold Stassen removed Scott County Sheriff Arthur Mesenbrink from office for neglect of duty and violating the public trust. Local pastors accused Mesenbrink of ignoring ample evidence of illegal gambling parlors in Scott County. Mesenbrink said he wasn’t aware of the gambling operations and that it was up to the county’s local police chiefs to bring him evidence of the activities.   

Governor Stassen said Mesenbrink permitted "open, flagrant and notorious" violations of state law.

State officials told the FOX 9 Investigators they do not believe the governor had the right to unilaterally remove an elected county official after 1986, when the legislature established the process to remove an official through a petition process.