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LIGHTNING Q&A: McDonald poised to run as reformer

Sheriff Charlie McDonald Sheriff Charlie McDonald

As Sheriff Charlie McDonald lays the groundwork for his first political campaign, he's looking back on a year of morale repair in the aftermath of the scandal that led to the resignation of Rick Davis in 2011.

McDonald is expected to announce his intention to run for the job he holds within weeks.


Maybe it's appropriate that he looks like the iconic household disinfectant figure because Charlie McDonald might well run as Mr. Clean. The public perception of the department had fallen and morale was in the cellar when he was sworn in as sheriff in March 2012, five months after Davis's abrupt resignation stunned the community.

Nominated by the Republican Party and appointed by the Board of Commissioners, McDonald, who grew up here, had been a sheriff's captain and SWAT commander before he retired in 2010. A high school dropout who joined the Navy at age 17, McDonald oversees a department of 200 fulltime employees and a budget of $16 million.
In an interview with the Hendersonville Lightning, he said his highest priority when he became sheriff was to rebuild the morale of the deputies, install professional standards and restore the public's confidence in the department.

LIGHTNING: You came on board after the department had taken a hit and morale was suffering. What did you encounter?

I think the thing that I noticed so much, right after I won the nomination and was elected, people in here told me that they just felt like all of a sudden the atmosphere shifted for them. I had not been around here for a year and a half pretty much prior to that, and people will still tell me that the gloom and the morale was really oppressive. And I think from what I hear from them it was really largely because there was a sense of betrayal in the department, just as a lot of the community felt it, particularly on the political side. That led to an awful lot of uncertainty in-house. People didn't know who was going to be the next sheriff, or what might happen, but one of the biggest concerns I heard from people is they felt like their honor, their integrity was being questioned by the community, and they understood why but they were really concerned because most of our folks are very noble minded, very inspired-to-do-the-right-thing kind of folks. There's nothing in the world of law enforcement that hurts more than seeing your image tarnished — real or imagined. It's pretty devastating.

LIGHTNING: It's one of your main assets.

It really is. One of the first things we did was we established a professional standards division, not to go on witch hunts but to let folks know that we really held ethics and professionalism and integrity in real high regard, and so that everybody knew it. We had to set a standard or reaffirm what the standard needed to be, and then we started acting accordingly. We dealt with things as they came up, we dealt with them according to that standard. We did an internal survey, had an independent guy come in. In this anonymous survey he actually compared prior to my coming in, and then asked the same questions. One of them was accountability, and under the prior administration people felt like there was no real accountability; it wasn't (enforced) the same, everything wasn't on a level playing field. And within a couple months after we came in everybody felt like one of the biggest changes across the board was accountability. It even impressed the guy who did the survey. He said he felt like that was something that people really needed. And we started with it at the top in all honesty. People will tell you now that if you're a supervisor, you work hard, and the higher up you go, the longer hours you work and the more responsibility you have, and I think in the past there was a culture that had let us get away from that. I can honestly say I was part of that culture before I left: the higher you got the less you really had to do, and it kind of fell on the shoulders of the folks that didn't have the time in. So what we're really doing here, it's kind of a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but we really are changing the culture. You really have to go through the hard steps of actually unlearning or undoing old habits and holding yourself accountable when you start falling back into old habits. And I don't think that culture was ever borne out of corruption; it was just a lack of standards, a lack of maybe commitment to a professional model.

LIGHTNING: Wasn't there an internal affairs division going back for years?

I was one of those (internal affairs officers) years ago. We always had an officer who was investigating internal affairs, and they did a good job but one of the things we really didn't have was the consistency standard. Things weren't always handled the same, and now, with a whole unit in place, we've revised our policies, we've redone our mission values statement, we've basically set a standard in place and everybody knows (what it is). Before, everybody kind of felt like the goalposts kind of shifted, depending on who you were and what the situation was.

LIGHTNING: Going back to the Nov. 23, 2011, news of Sheriff Davis's medical leave, are you saying nobody in command knew of the situation?

I want to be careful because I really don't want to throw other people under the bus. I will tell you at the command level, for the most part, people knew something was stirring but they didn't know what. And that was what was so devastating. When most of the people found out anything at all was that Thanksgiving eve on WLOS. I had deputies tell me they were sending texts back and forth not knowing what was going on.

LIGHTNING: You were not here.
No I had been retired a little over a year and a half. I was over internal affairs and media relations two years before I left here, and I had no idea. I don't know how long any of the weird things I heard (might have taken place). A lot of the things are still speculation. Was something amiss? Shoot, yeah.

LIGHTNING: You were abroad part of that time?
At that time I was mostly overseas (training law enforcement agencies).

LIGHTNING: Were you in the service?
I went in during Vietnam, not a Vietnam (war) veteran. I quit school at 16 and knew I was heading in a bad place and joined the Navy at 17. Because Vietnam was going on, they'd take a high school dropout that was 17. We lived here since '69. I went to West one year and went to Hendersonville. I went back and got my associates degree, and was a 4.0 student then.

LIGHTNING: Are people here glad to have you on board?

I have people tell me all the time — and I know that by virtue of where I am people like to tell you good things — but I have people in the community tell me all the time they're just impressed with the professionalism of our deputies. There are people who work around here who have a basis of comparison (who) talk about that they hear from inside that the morale is great. I hear it all the time. I have a lot of guys and girls that work here that are appreciative of what we're doing, really because we've tried to involved the people here in problem solving, trying to get consensus. It's never perfect, it'll never be perfect, but I think those that remember where things were a year and half ago appreciate and are grateful for what we've done.

LIGHTNING: Immigration enforcement seemed to be an issue that Sheriff Davis focused on, and I've heard farmers complain that their workers were often targeted for minor infractions. Is that as big a priority?
As far as our guys profiling, it would surprise me if that was going on. I've worked with Mark Williams (the county's agribusiness development director). Shortly after I came in he kidnapped me and took me around to meet a lot of the agri-business folks, and I listened to what they had to say, and there were a lot of legitimate and valid concerns. I think where we missed the boat is waiting for legislators and politicians to get something in place. The biggest problem that we had for law enforcement is we've got people out here driving vehicles that don't have drivers licenses, don't have insurance. The problem on the agriculture side was they need folks to pick crops and to do the kind of labor that's necessary here in Henderson County. I understand that if you wave the magic wand and got rid of everybody that was here illegally, our economy would collapse. We couldn't sustain it. We really have to do something that allows us to identify these folks, have some sort of positive identification of who they are, and I really think there ought to be some sort of provision for drivers licenses. The reality of it is we're in this place because of the hypocrisy of our government and the rules and regulation and the standards. Here's one thing you can't deny: Henderson County needs that kind of labor; they can't get it anywhere else. I'm one of those I guess conservatives that does not buy into the fact that these people are taking jobs from Americans that live here. I've talked to agribusiness people who can't hire local people to do the kind of work that these folks are doing. How do you argue with that?

LIGHTNING: Let me go back to the nomination process. You're no politician.
Thank you.

LIGHTNING: What was that like?
It's a political office. My eyes were open to a lot of things going through the process with the GOP executive committee, and one of the things I really came to appreciate was their true desire to really try to find the right person to do the job. They really were committed to putting something in place that the public could believe in. It went three or four ballots. My biggest competitor is next door (retired Highway Patrol Capt. Frank Stout, now a major and one of McDonald's top confidants). I'd known him over the years off and on — we weren't best friends, — but one thing I knew about Frank was that he was a guy of high ethics and standards. Everybody who knows Frank knows Frank for that. I called him a couple of days after the election, I hadn't taken office yet, and asked him if he was interested in doing that. He was a little bit surprised, and said he needed to pray about it and talk to his wife about it, and he called me back about 8-10 hours later and said he'd like to come on board. He's been a tremendous asset. I don't think it's about politics (but) after that I had people call me and say that was a shrewd move. I didn't do it about shrewdness, I did it out of necessity.

LIGHTNING: You made some changes in the command staff when you came in.

My folks know in here that you're not here because you're my buddy. You're here because you've got the same vision I have to make this the best department it can possibly be. If that's your commitment to me and that's my commitment to you then you also understand if somewhere along the line we need to make changes to enhance your ability to do what you need to do or enhance your effectiveness with the troops, we'll do that.

LIGHTNING: What's the biggest unmet demand you hear about from the public?

One of the things we're making some headway on is trying to provide the security we need to in the schools. We're working in conjunction with the schools. We put in place the adopt a school program where we have officers assigned to specific schools. That doesn't give us the security I'd like to see in there but it's going to depend on people other than us I guess to try to put other things in place, whether it's architectural design or the security features they put in place.

LIGHTNING: What's the biggest crime problem right now?
Drugs, always, when you lump it into one category. It's the impetus behind probably all of our breaking and enterings and larcenies, violence, abuse against kids, abuse against spouses. The thing that kind of shocked me, in the time that I was gone, methamphetamine used to be and still is a big problem, but overwhelmingly our drug guys will tell you that it's prescription pills being diverted from places, and it's people who are becoming addicts as a result of legitimate surgeries and pain treatment. We're actually working at a startup level with a committee trying to put something together that might be a multi-pronged approach to educate people about the danger of these prescription pills.

LIGHTNING: DARE supporters complained about budget cuts that threaten DARE camp. What's going with that?
What they're talking about is the DARE camp. They run through in that six-day period something like 240 kids. It is an incredible tool to touch and change lives for kids. All of the officers that work out there as well as the DARE volunteer counselors will tell you that as much as they see the kids' lives touched and changed, they really see theirs, so I'm 100 percent for it. What happened was several years when across the county we were looking at a budget shortfall a decision was made — it was a tough decision but I think it was a good decision — to cut across-the-board 7½ percent. That hurt us a lot, and we were put in the same boat as other county departments, and that was we had to determine of the money that we had, where was it best spent? We ended up losing some positions and we had to go back and look at what things we had to provide and what things were we doing that we could do without. ... (Under the program established by Sheriff Erwin) the DARE officers, when they weren't actually teaching DARE classes, were basically raising money. They were out here doing fundraising event, approaching businesses and companies, and we had we had at least three officers who were fulltime fundraising to provide that DARE camp. When Sheriff Davis came in, he made a decision to say we can't pay officers to be out there fundraising. It was obvious from a community outcry (the public) didn't want to do away with it, so the decision was made to put it in the county budget, so the county actually gave us a $30,000 line item to pay for that DARE camp. So when the 7½ percent cut came the decision was made to reduce that down to $5,000 because $5,000 they felt was enough to do the very minimum but not the camp, and I think rightfully the decision was made to go back to corporate donations and private citizens to find the money. My first year, last year, DARE had already raised some money, we had $5,000 in the budget, and we managed to save a significant amount of money. We actually spent $15,000 last year in addition to funds that were raised to have last year's DARE camp. This year, my decision was rather than go back to the county and ask for more money, as much I love the program I believe it's one of those things that if the people in the community want it then I believe the people in the community need to support it. ... There was a little bit of a mixup somewhere because we had some folks go to the county commissioners and challenge them about the cut in the DARE budget. Their information wasn't exactly accurate. I think there were a lot of hurt feelings because it kind of came across that people thought the commissioners weren't supportive of the program and I can honestly say that they've always been. They kind of got tarred with the brush of not caring about the kids and it really was misinformation. What I'm in the process of doing is trying to get that cleared up. I provide about 12-14 officers for a six-day period, some of them 24 hours a day, and the day before to set up and the day after to take down.