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Sheriff's candidates spar over morale, school officers

Michael Brown makes a point as Sheriff Charlie McDonald and Erik Summey look on. Michael Brown makes a point as Sheriff Charlie McDonald and Erik Summey look on.

Candidates for Henderson County sheriff strongly agreed on one topic — the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms — and differed sharply on Wednesday night on department morale, the rate of hiring to fill openings and the need for sheriff's deputies in schools.


State Highway Patrol trooper Michael Brown and Fletcher Police Chief Erik Summey, who are challenging Sheriff Charlie McDonald in the May 6 Republican primary, both asserted that morale is poor in the sheriff's department. The candidates answered questions during a League of Women Voters forum Wednesday night that drew 73 people.
"I have been asked in various community meetings, people have asked me that question, 'Why is morale so bad?'" Summey said. "I worked there a long time, I've got close friends, coworkers, we worked together. We worked with their department, they worked with ours as well. There are some issues that apparently are going on but again I don't know what's going on until I get in there.
"But morale and positive leadership starts from the top," he added, "and that's what I'll bring when I'm hopefully at the Sheriff's Department and it's what I brought to the Police Department in Fletcher. Everyone knows the story there; it wasn't just one person that changed that place, it was a group, it was a team effort, and if there is a morale problem I would like to come in and speak to employees, identify what these issues are and get things in place. It's not going to happen overnight but there will be a plan to get things turned around if that is what's going on."
McDonald said he's already put in place policies to ensure objective, fair hiring and promotions and accountability.

"Morale was at the rock bottom because of the situation that had gone on," he said of the department he took over in March 2012 after the resignation of Sheriff Rick Davis. "I correctly identified that probably had a lot to do with leadership accountability. We made arrangements to look inside, do evaluations, actually hire a consultant to come in, help us in reorganization and bringing in modern police management techniques.
"To hear that the morale's not great in the department I don't think is exactly true. I think it's probably the perspective of a person or two but again we've put in place a lot of things that have made us a lot more professional. Accountability means that you have to do things to actually get promoted, to be laterally transferred, to be hired. So I stand by what we've done. I think morale is better than it's been, it's never perfect. If you're doing your job, you're going to have some people dissatisfied here and there."
Brown suggested that McDonald's policies have made things worse.

"I've spoken with many employees of the sheriff's office and morale is an issue contrary to what might have been said," he said, "and I think if you know any deputies and if they trust you they'll probably speak freely to you. Certainly a lot of them have spoken to me. I can tell you that I would like to implement a policy to shelter employees from demotion or dismissal without a due process. I think any time that there's not a policy in place — at least the policy that I'd like to put in place to protect them from that — they're fearful of their jobs.
"One thing that I'm not going to do is hire a consultant to come in and advise me at the sheriff's office. I believe that never having worked at the sheriff's office I can bring new life and new vision and a new perspective into that department. I understand this consultant has cost quite a sum of money to taxpayers. I think when you bring a consultant in, I think that's a morale killer."
Brown said he would use volunteers to ensure there is a safety officer in every school. McDonald and Summey agreed that school resource officers were important but did not openly endorse the volunteer program, which Brown said had been authorized by the Legislature in a new law.


When League of Women Voters president Judy Katz asked Brown and Summey about the restructuring plans they promote on their websites, both candidates pointed to numerous openings in the department, suggesting they are caused by the sheriff's tough hiring restrictions.

"Right now I believe communications is short staffed, patrol has been short staffed, you've got six or seven deputies routinely answering calls for service," Brown said. "We do not have resource officers in our schools. I want to put deputies back in our schools and work to make all our schools more safe. I believe it's an issue of reallocation of personnel. Two-hundred and seven employees, I believe is what the count was, we need allocate into essential service before we promote people into a top-heavy administration."
Summey said he was aware of openings, too.
"The process that's put in place that's Sheriff McDonald's prerogative to put those there," he said. "But if it's taking too long, that you're having to have employees work overtime, and you're working short-staffed, you're burning those employees out and eventually you're going to start losing good employees. I'm not saying go backwards but obviously you can restrict the hiring process to where you wash everyone out. We want the best people at Fletcher, just as the sheriff wants the best people at the sheriff's department. But to get more people in to these positions that are open, we need to get these folks help right now."

His opponents were "insinuating things that need to be addressed," McDonald responded. "Certainly we do have a lot of openings at the sheriff's office; we're trying desperately to fill them. What we're not doing is watering down the process to get qualified candidates. It does take time but it actually takes half as long as it did when I first took office. We take things very seriously, like criminal background (check) and drug usage and reading at an eighth grade level. Those are things that are in our hiring process. Certainly we do wash out a good many folks but I'd rather not hire to start with than end up dealoing with problems if you hire the wrong kind of people."


The candidates differed on school resource officers, too.

Brown said he would hire trained volunteers and cover every school. McDonald questioned the cost. Summey said he would make school safety a priority, working with the School Board and Board of Commissioners.

"If elected I'll make immediate steps to put deputies in the middle schools and then I will work to have them in the elementary schools," Brown said. "We can do that by use of qualified volunteers and that's what I'm going to do if I'm elected sheriff.

"You turn on the news and what do you see: school shootings and school shootings. We're not immune here. We need to protect against that. I want to protect the children and the eduacators so they'll have a safe environment to learn in and we're just quite frankly not prepared for that. And there's a way to do that without spending money."

McDonald said the sheriff's office has safety officers in all four high schools and "most of the middle schools" and is in  budget talks to add more. "I'm certainly interested in talking to Mr. Brown about how we could hire a lot more officers without costing the taxpayers any money," he said. "I'm all about that."
Brown had an answer: volunteers.
The program authorized last year by the Legislature, he said, allows law enforcement agencies to hire and train volunteers and deploy them in schools. The volunteers would have to have at least two years of law enforcement or military police experience, be certified in firearms and "also meet some cognitive and behavioral training with the students," he said.

Summey said he would emphasize school safety , too.

"That's one of the focus points of my campaign, is to try to get more school resource officers," he said. "It costs money, there's nothing that's free. My proposal is to sit down with the School Board and commissioners and let's get a plan — short term and long term — and get school resources officers in the schools."


All three candidates expressed a moderate view toward undocumented immigrants, citing their value to the county's large farm economy.

Brown said he deals with the situation as a Highway Patrol trooper.
"It sort of creates a problem in law enforcement," he said. "It's there and we have to abide by it. It sort of creates a problem for us in the Highway Patrol enforcement. Nevertheless they put it in place and we have to deal with it and abide by it."
"Agriculture's a huge part of Henderson County," he added, "so we have to balance that and the needs of those and deal with the violent offenders that are committing crimes."
Sheriff Charlie McDonald and Erik Summey took questions during a forum.Sheriff Charlie McDonald and Erik Summey took questions during a forum."I probably take a bit of a controversial stand," McDonald said, "in that I supported legislation that never made it off the floor for undocumented folks who live in this area, if we could identify who they were and know that they had proof of the ability to drive and proof of insurance. That wasn't real popular with a lot of people. It didn't go anywhere.
"The reason I supported it is we are very very dependent on a migrant work force and not all of them are documented. We've painted ourselves into a corner where we really need those folks. Everybody in this room needs to eat. I don't miss too many meals. I think that is one thing we could do at the state level that would I think be fair and the right way to deal with a need that we really have in this community."
Summey agreed.
"The agriculture is huge within this community — the orchards, the apple industry," he said, "and as I've worked in law enforcement I don't know that I've ever seen too many local folks out there doing those hard labor jobs. ... That's a difficult question because they're here illegally, they're trying to do the job and they're helping with the community, so I think as long as the check and balance is there for them to obtain a license they can."


As for the Second Amendment, the candidates swore allegiance to the NRA and citizens' rights to own and use a weapon to protect their homes and families.

"I support the Second Amendment. I always have," Summey said. "I'm a member of the NRA. Talking about law enforcement, we want to get there as quick as we can (to a crime scene) but at the same time citizens need to be able to protect their homes and their family and also being out in the public, if they adhere to the rules and they've gone through to get the (conceal-carry) permit and passed the requirements that are assessed then they should be allowed to carry their weapon."
Brown one-upped Summey, saying everyone should own a gun.

"I'm a lifelong member of the NRA and a North Carolina certified conceal-carry handgun instructor. I believe every law abiding citizen should possess a handgun, not only carry-conceal if they qualify — I believe you'd see a lot less crime, and actually I believe if you look at the stats gun crime has gone down."

Katz asked the sheriff, "Is your position any different?"
"No, it's not actually," he said. "I think that's probably the one thing we all agree on."