December may have been the cruelest month for township trustees, as well as a host of other local officials — from elected county assessors to surveyors. That’s because December was when the Kernan-Shepard Commission released its report calling for a massive overhaul of Indiana’s state government structure.
Led by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, the commission was called into being by Gov. Mitch Daniels in response to last summer’s property tax crisis.
Among the commission’s many recommendations, Kernan-Shepard called for the transfer of all township government- responsibilities, including assessment, poor relief, fire, EMS and cemeteries, to the county executive and county council.
But in addition to its manifest inefficiencies and redundancies, Indiana’s township system of government appears prone to a kind of old-boy favoritism, where certain individuals are able to live outside expected standards of accountability, or even law-abiding behavior.
A case in point is the story of Michael Sherfick.
Michael Sherfick has a history of running afoul of the law, going back at least to 1994, when he faced attempted rape charges. He accepted a deal from the prosecutor in that case that reduced his charges to sexual battery in exchange for his guilty plea.
Based on this case alone, one would be hard-pressed to consider Sherfick promising material for a future in law enforcement. But in Indiana’s township system of local government, the right connections can provide even a man who pleads guilty to sexual battery with a second and even a third chance.
Flash forward to June 2003. In the early hours of a Saturday morning, Indianapolis Police Department officer Thomas Black watched a 1965 Shelby Cobra make an illegal U-turn in the middle of Broad Ripple Avenue. He noticed that one of the car’s taillights was out and pulled it over. When Black approached the car, the driver presented Boone County sheriff’s credentials identifying himself as Michael Sherfick.
A background check quickly revealed Sherfick’s sexual battery conviction, and a 1996 arrest for impersonating a police officer. Black contacted the Boone County Sheriff’s Department and was told that there was no deputy or reserve officer on staff named Sherfick, but that Sherfick might be a “friend” of Sheriff Dennis Brannon.
When contacted by Black, Brannon said he was aware of what he called Sherfick’s “colorful past.” He said Sherfick was a “special deputy” with the department whose responsibilities were limited to grant writing and administrative duties. Brannon added that Sherfick “did help with my campaign.”
Two years later, on July 5, 2005, IPD officer Linda Jackson observed a Chevy Suburban roll through a stop sign on the city’s Northeastside. She pulled the vehicle over and the driver offered her Boone County Sheriff’s Department credentials identifying him as Michael Sherfick and told Jackson that he was a deputy.
Jackson let Sherfick go with a verbal warning (such courtesies are common between fellow officers), but by the time she returned to her cruiser the radio was abuzz regarding Sherfick’s sexual battery conviction and a 1996 conviction for impersonating an officer. Sherfick was contacted by cell phone and asked to return while IPD control contacted Boone County Sheriff Dennis Brannon.
Brannon told IPD that “he was aware of Sherfick’s status as a sex offender, and that [Sherfick] was limited to administrative duties.” Brannon also said that Sherfick had only been convicted of a misdemeanor sex crime, not a felony. He went on to say that he had “yanked Sherfick’s captain’s credentials” a few months before after a squabble with an Atlanta hotel manager, but that recently he had reinstated them.
“This time,” Brannon assured Jackson, “his credentials would be yanked for good.”
Sherfick returned to the scene just as another officer joined Jackson. A search of his vehicle turned up a pistol, 12 rounds of live ammo, Boone County sheriff’s credentials as well as credentials in the names of “Terry Sullivan” and “Anthoni C. Lepper.” There were also credentials and a badge identifying Sherfick as a special deputy with the Perry Township Constable’s Office.
Perry Township Deputy Constable Dan Constantino was contacted and soon arrived at the scene. He told IPD he was “vaguely familiar” with Sherfick and was immediately and verbally revoking Sherfick’s status as a constable for Perry Township.
Then Brannon arrived on the scene. He said that he would revoke Sherfick’s deputy credentials through the remainder of his term in December of 2006.
Meanwhile, another officer was contacting the Hamilton County sheriff regarding Sherfick’s Westfield address. The Hamilton County Sheriff Department informed him that an unspecified warrant had been served at Sherfick’s residence and that Sherfick was found to be in possession of police uniforms from Brooklyn, Ind. All Sherfick’s various IDs and badges were confiscated pending further investigation and he was sent on his way.
Judge Lisa Borges (then chief of staff in the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office) sent a letter to Dennis Brannon demanding that Sherfick be relieved of duty and that all of his police identifiers be confiscated. It’s unclear whether she sent a similar letter to the Perry Township constable, Roy Houchins, demanding the same thing.
But on May 25, 2007, another Perry Township constable, Steven Burdine, was contacted by Sherfick and told that a Dodge Charger displaying a police plate 111820 had been broken into on the 300 block of South Meridian. Sherfick’s police radio, a handgun and two gift cards were all stolen from the vehicle. Burdine listed the victim as Major Michael S. Sherfick, a fellow Perry Township constable.
Township constables enjoy wide-open police powers and little if any oversight. Indiana code mandates that each township with a small claims court shall elect a constable who acts as an officer of that court and is granted arrest and peace keeping powers. It also gives them the power to appoint deputies that have the same “statutory and common law powers as a constable.”
Sherfick has a lengthy history of tunneling his way onto the rosters at small law enforcement agencies. He’s represented law enforcement at the Brooklyn Town Marshall’s Office, Boone County Sheriff’s Department, Perry Township Constable’s Office and the Westport Town Marshall’s Office, where Town Marshall Todd Hampton was so embarrassed that he offered to resign.
“I got took,” Hampton told the Greensburg Daily- Times. “I owned up to the fact that I used poor judgment and poor management skills.”
Since that time, what has become known as “the Sherfick incident” has led Westport to institute a series of checks and balances so stringent that it now takes up to three months to add a reserve deputy to the roster.
Apparently, Perry Township’s Chief Constable Roy Houchins never put anything that tough or lasting in place the night his deputy, Dan Constantino, verbally revoked Sherfick’s status.
In a phone interview with NUVO on Sept. 26, Houchins said, “I got rid of Sherfick and his cronies two weeks ago.” He declined to elaborate on who the cronies were. But in a subsequent FOX 59 television report, Houchins’ feet were held to the fire over charges that he offered Perry Township badges in exchange for campaign contributions. Houchins, who was elected to his second term as Perry Township constable in 2006, appeared contrite.
If Michael Sherfick’s story is a cautionary tale about how casually abuses of power can be treated in the culture of township government, at least one township official has begun to question the very viability of the township system. Gary Coons is a firefighter who ran successfully for Perry Township trustee. Coons points out that while the township system can be all the government that smaller communities have, in a consolidated city-county situation like Marion County, many traditional township services are already provided.
“In Marion County, we’re facing a property tax crisis, a property tax nightmare,” Coons says. “My stance is that if we’re going to change the way we’re collecting property taxes, then we’d better change the way we govern. If we don’t do that, we’re bound to fail. We have to eliminate redundant layers of government.”
Coons echoes the Kernan-Shepard Commission: “If you eliminate the redundant layers it means you’re going to eliminate politicians’ jobs. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to eliminate those services … The way I see it, you can act locally, but manage regionally.”
Although Coons isn’t ready to eliminate township government for small towns and rural areas, he thinks the system is obsolete in Marion County. He supports legislation being put forward by state Sen. Jim Merritt.
“When I was campaigning and knocking on doors, I kept hearing people say things like, ‘We’ll support you. We’re not sure what you do but we’ll support you.’ Then the property tax crisis hit … it was evident someone had to do something. I think what people will see in Jim Merritt’s bill is there will be consolidation and savings, but there will also be accountability.”
Coons guesses that most of his township trustee colleagues are unhappy with the current drift of things. “They want to keep their jobs.” But he adds, “I grew up in a conservative family. As a conservative I was always taught that entitlements weren’t a good thing. No one is ‘entitled’ to their position.”n
Scott Shoger and David Hoppe contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: The legislation introduced by Sen. Merritt to eliminate county offices (Senate Joint Resolution 0017) has not moved out of committee thus far in the legislative session. It is not currently scheduled for votes in the House or Senate.