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Use open process to pick next Perquimans sheriff

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

When Perquimans Board of Commissioners Chairman Kyle Jones describes the process his board is using to appoint a successor to retiring Sheriff Eric Tilley as the “most fair, open and non-partisan,” we assume he’s focusing mostly on its non-partisan nature.

Because Perquimans isn’t one of the 47 counties in North Carolina required by state law to appoint the nominee of the executive committee of the current sheriff’s political party, the county Board of Commissioners has a freer hand in selecting Tilley’s successor.

If Perquimans subscribed to the same statutes followed by Alamance, Beaufort or Burke counties, for example, commissioners would be bound by the choice of the Perquimans County Democratic Party, since Tilley has won his past elections as the nominee of that party. However, because Perquimans is exempt from that requirement, the county’s next sheriff could actually be a registered Republican or an unaffiliated voter if the commissioners so choose.

While that could be a good thing — the best candidate to replace Tilley may not be a Democrat — we can’t endorse the way Perquimans commissioners have chosen to select the county’s next sheriff. It’s certainly not “open” in the traditional meaning of the word. And since it’s not open, it’s difficult to judge whether it’s “fair” or not.

Up to now, all the public knows about what Jones’ board is doing to replace Tilley, who is retiring at the end of this month, is that it’s met in closed session to discuss six candidates for the job and plans to discuss them again in closed session on Jan. 17.

County officials have thus far refused to release the names of the six candidates, saying only that they’re not required to under state law. An attorney for the North Carolina Press Association confirmed that interpretation of the law for Perquimans Weekly Editor Peter Williams but also noted there’s also nothing in the statute prohibiting the release of the candidates’ names either.

We’re not sure why Perquimans officials have decided county residents shouldn’t know who’s applied for the right to be their county’s chief law enforcement officer. Residents certainly would know the candidates’ names and qualifications if an election was being held to replace Tilley. Which, of course, will happen in 2018 when Tilley’s current four-year term expires. The public then will know the names not only of commissioners’ pick for Tilley’s replacement — should he or she choose to run for a full term — but those who elect to challenge him or her. So why not tell the public who the candidates for sheriff are now?

By contrast, the Currituck Board of Education recently filled a vacancy on its board by releasing not only the names of the six candidates seeking the position but also holding their interviews for the job in public. The board ended up selecting retired educator Janet Rose for the vacant seat following what was, by all accounts, a strong and publicly inclusive process.

Perquimans officials may be under the illusion that they can make a more objective choice for Tilley’s successor if they keep quiet about who the candidates are and hold their deliberations in secret. They may believe they can squeeze the politics out of the selection because those in the running or their supporters won’t be able to mount a public campaign that pressures commissioners to support one candidate over others.

But that seems to be a misunderstanding of how sheriffs are chosen in our state. Unlike police chiefs who are chosen in secret, usually by town or city managers, county sheriffs are selected in open elections. Candidates for sheriff have to declare their candidacies and ask for voters’ support. And once elected, they have to maintain the public’s support to keep the office. And unlike police chiefs, who serve at the will of the manager who hired them, it’s the public who fires sheriffs. Hiring a sheriff in secret, outside of a public process, not only is a disservice to the public, it’s a disservice to the person selected as well. 

That’s why we think any process to select a sheriff should operate as close to an election as possible. Current state law may not require Perquimans commissioners to release the names of the six people who want to be sheriff or to invite the public to the deliberations they’re conducting before they make a selection. But that’s not a good excuse for not doing so. It is an argument, however, for changing the law to require a public selection process.


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