For the last 12 years, the sheriff of Falls Church seemed to be sitting pretty. The work was relatively easy for a part-time job, and with no challengers at the ballot box, his job appeared to be secure.
It's a new ball game this year.
A college professor wants the job, the mayor and some city council members would like to abolish it, and most local residents don't seem to know enough about the sheriff's duties to care either way.
Sheriff John H. Martin is a little-noticed institution in this town of 9,515 squeezed between Arlington and Fairfax counties. He doesn't tote a gun or wear a uniform. He has no office or deputies. Most residents don't see him unless they're being served with a court subpoena, an eviction notice, divorce papers or a juvenile summons.
His only symbols of authority are a gold-colored badge clipped discreetly to his belt and a battered 1972 Plymouth was a faded star on the door.
And until last month, the 60-year-old Martin sandwiched his sheriff's duties between his full-time work as a pipefitter. For one thing, Martin says, the $12,300 salary didn't pay a livable wage, and by working weekday evenings, he was able to pick up the day's court papers from the city clerk and distribute them across his two-square-mile domain.
In the last year, however, the sheriff's salary was nearly doubled, to $20,500 a year, under a new pay formula established by the General Assembly.
Now, with the fatter salary and what Martin says is an increased workload, he has resigned his pipefitters job to devote full time to the duties of office.
Still, some city officials are not sure the pay is worth the amount of work the sheriff is asked to do. The duties generally involve civil matters, with little emphasis on criminal work.
"Seems like a pretty good salary for a job that doesn't amount to much," snickers one city official.
"That's what griped people," said Falls Church City Council Member Gary Knight. "He was a de facto part-time sheriff on a full-time salary."
Knight and other city officials argue that the city doesn't need its own sheriff -- part-time or full-time.
"I don't see why the state should fund a job that could be done by the sheriff's department of Fairfax County at no extra cost," said Falls Church Mayor Carol DeLong. She adds that she is opposed to the job, not to the man holding the position.
The sheriff's post in Falls Church is mandated by state law and city charter. In the 20 years that Martin has held the job, he has only had two challengers for the post.
The second came this year, when Donald F. Smith, a 44-year-old instructor at George Mason University, entered the race for the four-year term to be decided in the general election Nov. 3.
Smith says he has been knocking on doors almost every evening since he officially declared his candidacy in April. Martin says he hasn't started his campaign yet.
"I do expect to do some campaigning," Martin drawls. "You can't make too light of any opposition."
While Martin and Smith are pondering campaign strategy, some city officials say they would like to get rid of the sheriff's post altogether.
"But how do you convince the voters they don't need this city position when the city is not even paying for it?" asked Mayor DeLong.
A citywide referendum would be required to abolish the job, and to hold the referendum the city would first have to get permission from the state. Several years ago, the state denied such a request for Falls Church, which is one of only three Virginia jurisdictions served by two sheriffs, one from the city and one from the county.
And Martin contends he is performing a valuable service by delivering 90 percent of his court papers in person, a higher personal delivery rate than the county department shows.
But some city officials are skeptical of the need for such personal service.
And others were outright miffed by Martin's recent request for a $2,000 salary supplement from the city and a deputy from the state.
Again, Martin cited his increased workload and his offer to take over some of the county sheriff's deputy duties as bailiff in the city courtroom.
City officials didn't buy those claims and unanimously rejected any pay increase funded from the city treasury.
Last year, according to Martin, he handled 1,631 court papers, warrants and notices. That's an average of about six papers each workday. He estimates that he spends 1 1/2 hours preparing and serving each paper, which, according to his calculations, comes out to an average workload of 10 1/2 hours a day.
Martin predicts he will serve 2,000 court papers this year, or about one for every five Falls Church residents.
Some city officials and county sheriff's workers strongly dispute those figures.
The county sheriff's office fills in for Martin when he is on vacation. Sources in the sheriff's department familiar with the workload said a deputy usually spends little more than 20 minutes a day in Falls Church performing the city sheriff's duties.
Martin counters that the county office delivers only the most essential papers in his absence and doesn't cover his entire workload.
And, they note, 1631 or even 2,000 papers a year is not a heavy workload. The 12 Fairfax County sheriff's deputies involved in the same kind of work deliver an average of 10,000 court papers each year -- a total of 120,000 court papers and cover a much larger territory -- 440 square miles -- according to Captain Don Harrison, chief of court services for the department.
With opposition from all sides, Martin could be facing a tough reelection bid. He's arguing that the job is full time, and apparently setting out to prove it. His opponent, Smith, is using Martin's old line that the job can be done on a part-time basis. Smith maintains he will continue his work at George Mason, where he teaches sociology and history, while performing the sheriff's chores.
Meanwhile, despite the opposition to the post, Mayor DeLong says she's not at all sure the voters want to eliminate the job, even if it is duplicating services and costing them extra tax dollars on the state level.
"There are those in Falls Church," she admits, "who like saying 'I have my own sheriff.'"