Current Sheriff Jimmy Ashe, whose administration has been plagued with criticism over the past eight years, isn’t one of the contenders. That leaves an open seat, and nine candidates are vying for it.
All candidates emphasize that their administration would feature a new vision, respect for the community or an open door policy, outlining a goal to veer the sheriff’s office far from where it has been. Ashe was rarely seen and not the public figure citizens expect from their top lawman.
The sheriff didn’t make himself accessible to the media or to the community, often refusing to return requests for media comments or to speak with reporters. Questionable spending practices — Ashe was caught using drug seizure money to buy new carpet for his office and get his name on the national Who’s Who list — also made problems.
But as to the actual issues at hand, the candidate’s thoughts on how to deal with them are nearly as diverse as the names on the ballot will be. With the primary just over a month away, they’re hashing out their differences when it comes to such pivotal issues as drug use, budget difficulties, an aging county jail, relationship with the community and concerns about school security.
“Drugs is one of the biggest things for Jackson County right now,” Douglas Farmer said during a forum organized by Jackson County Democrats. “It fuels a lot of our other crimes we have right now.”
That’s one thing all nine candidates can agree on. But each has a different idea of how to combat the problem.
For several candidates, partnerships with other agencies are the key to combating drug abuse and trafficking.
“We’ve got to have a strong working relationship with our state and federal partners, along with our regional and local partners,” said Chip Hall, a Democrat. “Those who choose to deal with drugs don’t remain in one jurisdiction.”
Mary Alice Rock, who is one of three Republican candidates, agrees. As sheriff, she would reach out to other counties and jurisdictions and deputize members of those agencies as volunteer auxiliary officers. She would concentrate on catching the ringleaders, relying on federal help when necessary.
“I think the biggest problem we have is the ringleaders are not being targeted,” she said. “They need to be taken out.”
Robin Gunnels, a Democrat, pledged to be proactive when it comes to combating the drug problem, using an approach that would rely on citizens.
“Using our citizens’ information is the greatest resource we have,” Gunnels said.
Public awareness of the specific issues is also important, said Democrat Glen Biller. Someone who is abusing prescription drugs in Tennessee could be using a doctor in Florida and filling the prescription in North Carolina, so law enforcement should focus on informing the public about what to watch for and then react to tips when they come in.
“Surveillance is probably the best thing,” Biller said. “We need to be out there talking to the public.”
Of course, drugs aren’t the only problem with regard to crime. Property crimes — burglary, robbery, vandalism, etc. — are also an issue, and they often involve the same people who are abusing drugs, said Republican candidate Curtis Lambert.
By increasing patrols, “You can cut down on the property crime, which in turn offers up people who are using and abusing drugs,” Lambert said.
Hall and Republican Jim Hodges also emphasized drug prevention education as important, while Democrat Steve Lillard said that the first thing he’d do would be to take a hard look at the department’s policies for funneling information and tips. He’d also evaluate the need for officer training and equipment.
With school violence an ever-increasing reality, the candidates are also talking about their differences when it comes to school security.
“I graduated high school with a knife at my side and never thought about violence,” Gunnels said. “But today we have to.”
None of the candidates disputed the importance of having school resource officers in all Jackson County schools — only five officers are currently assigned to cover Jackson County’s nine public schools. Many affirmed that each school should have a designated SRO, and Democrat Michael Gosnell went a step further.
“There should be two SROs on duty should one fall in the line of duty to protect the remaining innocent and children and so forth,” he said.
In addition, candidates said that these officers must be selected and trained with care. The sheriff should also make a point to collaborate with the school system and with other law enforcement entities.
“I don’t know the inner workings,” Lambert said. “On the other hand, I don’t feel the sheriff’s office currently has a good working relationship with the board of education.”
“Safety in our schools is not just a law enforcement function,” said Lillard, citing the importance of developing strong relationships with school administration. “Everybody has a role to play to make sure our schools are safe while still meeting the emotional and educational needs of each child.”
Biller added that he would integrate schools into the rounds of regular county patrols, even those not designated as SROs. And in the event of an emergency, it will be vital that everybody knows what to do and where to go.
“If I were the sheriff of Jackson County, that’s a must,” Gunnels said. “Train with each individual department as a coalition, because I’m telling you, if it happens we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
In Rock’s view, that help should come from within the school as well. As sheriff, she would support concealed carry permits for teachers and administrators with crime-free backgrounds.
“I would encourage them to carry that weapon on their person,” she said. “Our president has armed guards. I think our children deserve the same.”
Managing the budget
When it comes to the budget, candidates unpack their business ownership, department management and financial experience to prove their ability to manage the sheriff department’s $3.6-million budget. Several episodes of questionable spending had brought the current sheriff under scrutiny, so candidates were quick to make it clear that they understand each of those dollars must go toward the public good.
“Care must be given to each decision so use of the money is clearly to promote the public’s interest,” Lambert said.
Gunnels, Lambert, Biller, Hodgins and Rock cited their experience managing finances in the private sector, while Lillard, Hall and Farmer said they’ve been heavily involved in budget discussions for the law enforcement agencies they’ve worked for.
The bottom line, Farmer said, is to make sure that there is a reason behind every dollar.
“The main thing for any budget is justification,” he said. “You must provide that justification for every line item, and every time you can save the taxpayers money, you can be sure they’re going to appreciate that.”
Operating a jail
Candidates also outlined their ideas for managing the county jail, a task Gunnels called “the most liable operation” the sheriff oversees.
“A local jail is unique in the fact that many people who are being detained are awaiting a court appearance and haven’t been convicted of criminal charges,” Lillard said.
That means that the sheriff is responsible not only for keeping the building secure but for ensuring the safety and well-being of the inmates. The candidates agreed that the new sheriff should review the jail’s policies and procedures, as well as evaluate all deputies currently working there, to determine what should be done differently.
Hall emphasized the need for a technological upgrade, as well.
“The biggest challenge facing the leader of the sheriff’s office today is the technology that is in our current jail,” he said. “The jail technology that exists today was put in the establishment in the early 90s, so it needs to be updated.”
Rock also added that the female holding cell is too small, creating privacy issues for the inmates. And, she said, medical care is not up to the standard it should be, especially considering that the jail does not house exclusively guilty people.
“People are only accused when they’re jailed, unless they’re serving a sentence,” she said, “but even then their health is paramount to their future.”
Biller concurred, saying that he would want the jail to always have a nurse on-site, with others on call at all times. Farmer, however, cautioned that the jail should never be a cushy experience.
“When you do have someone thrown into jail and processed as an inmate, you don’t want to take it to a point that it’s like a hotel stay,” Farmer said. “You want to make it something that I don’t want to go back there no more.”
Shooting for openness
But despite their differences, all the candidates are running on a platform of increased openness and accessibility compared to the current administration.
“Community involvement is the key to a functioning sheriff’s office and a good community response,” Hall said.
Hodgins said he’d plan to spend time out in the community talking to people, while Gunnels and Gosnell promised to be reactive to the tips and concerns they would receive from the public. Lambert pledged an open door policy if he became sheriff, and Biller outlined a service-oriented administration in which phone calls would be returned promptly and officers held accountable for their actions. Farmer promised to send the department in “a new direction” from where it is headed now, while Rock said that “helping people who need help” and “protect[ing] and serv[ing] the public” would be cornerstones of her administration.
“The sheriff is the highest-ranking officer in the county,” Lambert said, “and with so much responsibility placed upon him, he needs to be a leader, both morally and ethically.”
Jackson sheriff's candidates
The May 6 primary will narrow down the contenders for the Jackson County sheriff. The field of six Democrats and three Republicans will be whittled down to one candidate per party for the November ballot.
Glen Biller, D, 50
Qualifications: Deputy at Haywood County Sheriff Department. Twenty-four years in the U.S. Army, including four years active duty; 14 years managing building supply company.
Reason to run: “My goal is to make sure that Jackson County is safe for all of our citizens and to enforce the laws of North Carolina without bias.”
Philosophy: “The Sheriff’s Office will serve the citizens of Jackson County with respect and the courtesy they deserve.”
Favorite vacation spot: The beach
Douglas Farmer, D, 50
Qualifications: Police officer at Sylva Police Department. Sixteen years in law enforcement, including stints with the Macon and Jackson county sheriff’s offices, as well as the Highlands Police Department; One year as international police officer in Iraq.
Reason to run: “I’ve got such a wide range of experience that I think it gives me a real even keel on how to deal with people and how to approach difficult situations.”
Philosophy: “I will enforce the law and aggressively pursue the people that put this stuff [drugs] on our streets, put them in jail and keep them there.”
Favorite music: Bluegrass and gospel, especially Mountain Faith
Michael Gosnell, D, 58
Qualifications: Security guard at Old Edwards Club at Highlands Cove. Thirty-five years in security, including seven as an armed guard and 27 in law enforcement.
Reason to run: “Jackson County is my home and I want to see what I can do to deter and fight crime. It’s not going to be wiped out, but it can be reduced.”
Philosophy: “A sheriff elected is only as good as his word. In other words, make no promises but show results.”
Favorite TV show: “In the Heat of the Night”
Robin Gunnels, D, 49
Qualifications: Owner of Custom Truck Covers. Seventeen years in law enforcement as jailor, patrol officer, sergeant and lieutenant; 12 years as business owner.
Reason to run: “I know what the public talks about. I know what their needs are. I know how to manage a budget. I’m not a one-dimensional person.”
Philosophy: “We have to fix things now. We have to be proactive now, not wait till later. I built my entire life on one principle, and that is integrity.”
Favorite fruit: Mangos
Chip Hall, D, 46
Qualifications: Chief deputy at Jackson County Sheriff’s Department. Twenty-five years at Jackson County Sheriff’s Department in a variety of positions.
Reason to run: “I want to reach out to be active in everything that goes on in our community, to have a relationship with our citizens beyond anything we’ve ever had.”
Philosophy: “Community involvement is the key to a functioning sheriff’s office and a good community response.”
Favorite fruit: apples
Steven Lillard, D, 43
Qualifications: Assistant police chief at Western Carolina University. Nineteen years in law enforcement as a patrol officer, investigator and division-level administrator
Reason to run: “My experience, training and education have helped prepare me to make good decisions and collaborate with other people and agencies.”
Philosophy: “I want to be open and honest with the public. Working together, we can solve problems.”
Favorite TV show: “Blue Bloods”
Jim Hodgins, R, 62
Qualifications: Retired logger. Forty years as a logger, including business ownership.
Reason to run: “I’m hoping we can accomplish getting the drugs out of here, or doing our best to slow them way down.”
Philosophy: “I think the sheriff ought to be out there looking after his men. I believe he needs to take care of them and stay on them to make sure they do their jobs.”
Favorite TV show: “Andy Griffith Show”
Curtis Lambert, R, 44
Qualifications: Former officer at Sylva Police Department. Fourteen years in law enforcement, including service with the Sylva Police Department and Jackson County Sheriff’s Office; former vice president of payroll service.
Reason to run: “I have a combination of law enforcement and business experience, and that’s what it takes nowadays to be an effective sheriff.”
Philosophy: “An effective leader will be someone that will have an open-door policy and an open-department policy to where they’re not trying to hide things that are going on.”
Favorite vacation: history tour of Charleston, S.C.
Mary Alice Rock, R, 46
Qualifications: Bail bondsman. Two years of active duty in the U.S. Army; seven years in inactive reserves; basic law enforcement training; 15 years as bail bondsman.
Reason to run: “There appears to be no law in Jackson County, and we need law restored.”
Philosophy: “Help people who need help. Get back to the basics of why you have a sheriff’s office to begin with. It’s to protect and serve the public, not personal needs or gains.”
Favorite music: “Keep Ya Head Up” by 2PAC; “God Bless America”