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Wednesday, 26 December 2012 00:00

Democratic Party holds the power in appointing new sheriff

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The task of finding a new top lawman in Haywood County to replace retiring Sheriff Bobby Suttles will begin in early January and likely be decided by March.

 

Since Suttles is a Democrat, the job of picking a replacement is up to local Democratic Party leaders, according to state statutes. Specifically, the decision rests with the Haywood County Democratic Executive Committee, a large group of party officials that includes elected Democratic leaders in the county and the party chair and vice chair of all 31 voting precincts.

SEE ALSO: Haywood sheriff to step down early

Voters won’t have a chance to weigh in on the sheriff’s office until 2014, when the seat will be up for a countywide election. But whomever is chosen by the party as Suttles’ successor will arguably have a leg up going into that election should they decide to run to keep the seat.

“There are a handful or less of incumbents that actually get defeated. That is very rare,” said Eddie Caldwell, director of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association.

One name that’s been floated as a possible replacement for Suttles is Greg Christopher, a lieutenant in the N.C. Highway Patrol who lives in Haywood County and works out of the Highway Patrol’s Asheville headquarters.

Reached by phone last week, Christopher said he was honored people in the community have recommended his name. He was not yet ready to announce whether he will formally seek the party’s consideration, however, but plans to do so soon.

Another possible contender is Larry Bryson, the chief deputy of the sheriff’s office and second in command under Suttles for the past four years. Bryson has been with the sheriff’s office for around 17 years, serving most of that time in the detective division. His law enforcement career also included several years with the Waynesville Police Department.

 

Holding the power

Local Democratic Party leaders are treading familiar territory when it comes to picking a new sheriff. They were in the same spot four years ago, when then-Sheriff Tom Alexander retired early — also with two years left on his term.

The party gave the job to Suttles, who was second in command as chief deputy at the sheriff’s office under Alexander.

Suttles then ran for the seat in 2010 and beat his Republican challenger Bill Wilke by 7 percent — 10,612 votes to 9,332 votes. Wilke is a lieutenant in the Asheville Police Department but lives in Haywood County. His platform two years ago centered around modernizing the sheriff’s office and more aggressively combating drugs.

Given his relatively strong showing in the election, Wilke could be a contender for Suttles’ replacement — barring the important detail that he’s a Republican and the appointment will be made by the Democratic Party.

When asked whether he would submit his name for consideration anyway, he said it could be a possibility.

“This is going to develop very quickly and I am watching this very closely,” Wilke said. “It is the county I live in and raised my children in. I want to know it is protected with the most professional law enforcement agency possible.”

One question for Suttles is why, if he knew retirement was in the short-range forecast, did he even run again in 2010. Why not step down then, instead of run for office only to step down part way through his term?

Suttles said he didn’t know two years ago he would want to retire before his term was up.

“That wasn’t really on my mind at the time,” Suttles said.

Some critics of a partisan sheriff’s office have said privately they aren’t surprised by Suttles’ early retirement. Doing so allows the Democratic Party to handpick a successor and theoretically set that person up for an advantage going into a countywide contest in 2014.

Suttles was 64 when first appointed sheriff and 66 when he officially ran for the seat in 2010.

Suttles’ time in office — only four years — is short compared to the tenure of sheriffs statewide. The average is probably 12 to 16 years, said Caldwell, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association director.

Currently, the longest serving sheriff in the state has been in the office for 30 years, Sheriff Lendy Pendegrass of Orange County (where Chapel Hill is).

 

How it works

Democratic Party leaders said they will follow the same format this time that they used four years ago when selecting a sheriff to replace Alexander. They accepted resumes from anyone who wanted to apply and shared those names publicly. Candidates were put through the paces of a question-and-answer forum before the committee members voted.

“We wanted to make it as open and fair a process as it could be,” said Bill Jones, a Waynesville attorney who was the head of the Haywood Democratic Party at the time. “We didn’t want people to feel like we went into a backroom and closed the door. I am sure that will still be the predominant goal this time — that it be open and fair.”

Indeed, Janie Benson, the current chair of the Haywood County Democratic party, said they are committed to the same level of transparency.

“We made great effort to be as fair to everyone as we could,” Benson said.

Giving each candidate the chance to appear before the executive committee during a forum is not required, for example, but will again be part of the process, she said.

Four years ago, Suttles was one of five hopefuls who submitted their names to party leaders for consideration. Two were eliminated after the forum, narrowing it down to just three finalists for the vote.

The actual vote can be a little complicated — not every vote of members of the Democratic Executive Committee is counted equally. The votes of precinct representatives are weighted according to the number of voters in that particular precinct. Specifically, precinct representatives get one vote for every 100 Democratic voters from their precinct that voted in the last gubernatorial race.

“It is kind of like the electoral college,” explained Robert Inman, director of the Haywood County Board of Elections.

The county election office doesn’t play a formal role in the party’s selection process, but will monitor and follow the process, Inman said.

This will actually be the third time in four years that the local Democratic Party has been tasked with filling a vacancy for an elected office in the county. The party used the same process when naming a new register of deeds in 2009.

 

Clock ticking

Suttles said he plans to retire on Feb. 8. It is highly doubtful the party will have a replacement selected so soon, however.

So in the interim, Chief Deputy Larry Bryson will run the sheriff’s office, Suttles said.

While Bryson will be in charge of overseeing the sheriff’s office until a formal replacement is named, his role will stop short of being “interim sheriff.” There is no such thing as an interim sheriff, Caldwell said. You are either the sheriff or you are not.

In Haywood County, the job of picking a replacement sheriff rests with the political party of the outgoing sheriff, but that’s not the case in all counties. In roughly half the counties in the state, county commissioners would name a replacement sheriff. In the other half — Haywood among them — the party names the replacement.

In those cases, county commissioners must finalize the decision and sign off on whoever the local party chooses, but their approval is obligatory.

“The board of commissioners are required to appoint the person recommended by the party,” Caldwell said.

There is a catch, however. The recommendation from the party must be made within 30 days of the vacancy occurring — otherwise, commissioners are no longer beholden to go with the party’s recommendation.

At the 30-day mark, county commissioners could intervene and appoint someone themselves, but likewise they could give the party more time to finish up with a recommendation.

Still, commissioners would be in the driver’s seat rather than party leaders if the 30 day window expires.

“Once the 30 days pass, any recommendation that gets submitted to the commissioners by the party, it is just a friendly recommendation, and the commissioners are free to take it or not,” Caldwell said.

That could prove more of a sticking point in counties where the sheriff has a different political affiliation than the majority of commissioners — such as a Democratic sheriff in a county with Republican commissioners, or vice-versa.

But in Haywood, four of the five county commissioners are Democrats, and thus would be involved in the process themselves as members of the Haywood County Democratic Executive Committee. They would likely have little motivation to buck the choice of local party leaders.

Suttles said he is retiring February 8, which would give the party until March 10 to offer up a replacement and still be guaranteed conferral by county commissioners.

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