Current Sheriff Jimmy Ashe’s retirement left the field wide open, and so far five Democrats and two Republicans have announced their candidacy in a race they all believe to be a defining one for the community.
“[Sheriff] is an important role, because it is the chief law enforcement officer, and the direction he goes, the stance that person takes within that organization, that can impact a lot of things in the community,” said Steve Lillard, a Democratic candidate who is currently assistant police chief at Western Carolina University.
Indeed, each candidate has his own list of high-priority issues, from crime prevention education to Latino community outreach to standardizing hiring procedures — but four defining issues seem to have already risen to the top.
The foremost issue discussed by the candidates is how law enforcement should address drug trafficking in Jackson County.
“The drugs — that’s the big issue is drugs,” said Jimmy Hodgins, Republican candidate and retired logger. “The reason I’m running for sheriff.”
Some think the issue is exacerbated by drugs moving through Jackson County en route from Atlanta to the casino in Cherokee.
“It’s assumed…that there’s a certain amount of drugs coming through our county,” said Democratic candidate Robin Gunnels, who owns a custom truck cover business and has worked in a variety of law enforcement positions.
Among the candidates, there’s no question that drugs are a problem in Jackson County. The question is how they will propose to deal with it, but almost all contend a more proactive approach is needed.
“People are concerned, and ways to address those issues will factor into the decision of who they choose for sheriff,” Lillard said.
Candidates also agree that the next sheriff should focus on installing a student resource officer in every school. Jackson County has nine public schools, but only five officers are assigned to cover them. The SRO position is vital, many candidates say, for quelling drug issues and providing security on campus.
“I’d like to ensure that each school gets an SRO assigned to it,” said Curtis Lambert, a Sylva police officer and Republican candidate for sheriff.
Two factors will determine the new sheriff’s success in reaching that goal: funding and the ability to work with the school system.
“You always want to work with your school system, your school board, to seek funding to eventually have an SRO in every school,” said Chip Hall, a current chief sheriff’s deputy and Democratic candidate for the office.
Ashe hasn’t done the best job greasing the skids with county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for school resource officers. He rarely made an appearance at county commissioner meetings, something most sheriffs in rural mountain counties do as a matter of course, just to be seen in the community and interact with the other elected leaders.
But Ashe averages only one commissioner meeting a year: the one where he is making his department’s annual budget request, and then isn’t seen again for another year. He has even skipped the budget meeting before and sent his underlings to make the funding requests.
Ashe found his spending practices in an uncomfortable limelight four years ago. Ashe was using drug seizure funds that are supposed to be earmarked for drug prevention in a rather unorthodox manner, including unauthorized donations to youth sports teams, including his kids’ teams, new carpet for his office and the registration fee to get his name on a national Who’s Who list — along with riding around on a Harley Davidson confiscated from a drug dealer, putting more than 1,300 miles on it before finally auctioning off the seized bike.
Collaboration with other community leaders will be an important issue, too. The candidates agree that the new sheriff will have to build positive relationships with other law enforcement agencies, such as WCU Police Department, Cherokee Indian Police Department and neighboring counties. Relationships with other Jackson County departments and with agencies such as the school system will be important, too.
“You’ve got to have good working relationships with your fellow law enforcement providers because criminals, they don’t stick to one jurisdiction,” Hall said.
In everything, communication is key, the candidates agreed. According to some, that’s something that has been lacking in the current administration.
“I think that we have to change the attitude the sheriff’s office is working under,” Gunnels said. “I think it needs to go back to a more service-oriented attitude.”
More openness about the department’s procedures and what is happening inside it will be important, Gunnels said.
Lambert agreed, adding that the new sheriff should listen to what community members are saying and be intentional about responding to their needs.
“There are some concerns that we need things to change,” Lillard added. “Maybe more emphasis on communication with the public, a little more transparency with whatever’s going on in the sheriff’s office. Being a little more accommodating to meet the needs of the public. Those are some of the concerns that have been brought to my attention in the community.”
And community perception is important, said democratic candidate Glen Biller, because serving the people is what law enforcement is all about.
“The people need to know that we’re out there working for them,” said Biller, Cullowhee resident and Haywood County sheriff’s deputy.
By contrast, Ashe has a poor working relationship with some media outlets, one of the main conduits for elected officials to reach the greater public. He often refuses to respond to media inquiries and interview requests, with dozens of phone, mail and in-person messages on a host of subjects going unreturned over the years.
Ashe at times has instructed his law enforcement officers not to speak to reporters. An email from Ashe to Major Rick Queen obtained by The Smoky Mountain News two years ago is indicative of the hostile attitude Ashe has with some media. Ashe told Queen “don’t return phone calls” and would not fulfill the paper’s public records request.
Ashe has also alienated various groups during his time in office.
He offended women’s advocates three years ago in his portrayal of a rape victim’s experience, injecting a measure of doubt as to the victim’s rape claim and references to her night of bar-hopping leading up to the incident (a home invasion by two strangers).
He offended Latinos by alleged racial profiling during traffic checkpoints, which critics decried as thinly veiled immigration dragnets. A sit-in protest was held in the sheriff’s lobby, and a legal complaint forced Ashe to agree to new traffic checkpoint protocols.
And he upset some in the restaurant industry by making them jump through extra hoops when applying for permits to serve alcohol, following a ballot referendum that legalized countywide alcohol sales. He has also been criticized by Cashiers residents for not providing enough services in their part of the county.
As the race moves forward, Jackson County voters will have the chance to hear the candidates debate their solutions to these issues. Of course, the discussion will likely splinter to include myriad other topics, as well, such as the sheriff department’s current policy of not responding to residential alarms unless someone with a house key can meet officers; updating security at the county jail; whether a change in hiring procedures is needed and how the department can best help victims of crime deal with their trauma.
“They’re all good people,” Gunnels said of the other candidates. “Everyone is going to have an equal shot to win.”
Lambert said voters want someone they have confidence in.
“You want someone you can trust at the helm,” Lambert said.
Doug Farmer, sergeant with the Sylva Police Department, is also running on the Democratic ticket but could not be reached by press time.
— Reporter Becky Johnson contributed to this story
• Robin Gunnels
• Chip Hall
• Steve Lillard
• Glen Biller
• Doug Farmer
• Jimmy Hodgins
• Curtis Lambert
*There is still a week left in the candidate sign-up period, so this list could change.