The straightforward Russ Gilliland is a fifth-generation Haywood County resident, but his path to becoming Maggie Valley’s newest police chief has been anything but.
A bid to make the Cherokee police chief’s position an elected one isn’t dead, but Tribal Council has voted to complete a study examining the pros and cons of such a move before making a choice. Following a lengthy discussion at their July meeting and a two-and-a-half-hour work session later that month, the council voted to embark on a feasibility study examining the possible effects of the idea and needs in the police department.
There’s talk in Cherokee of making the chief of police’s job an elected position following a resolution introduced by Travis Smith, a Birdtown resident who’s also a candidate for Tribal Council.
Davis Woodard, a veteran law enforcement officer in Jackson County, has been selected as Sylva’s new police chief.
One town commissioner, the town manager and two business owners will help pick Sylva’s next police chief.
The panel, agreed on last week at a board meeting, replaces one originally conceived by Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower that sparked dissent among the town’s five commissioners. She proposed using herself, two Western Carolina University employees, and the town of Maggie Valley’s police chief to select a replacement for Jeff Jamison, who steps down Oct. 1.
But Commissioners Harold Hensley, Danny Allen and Ray Lewis objected to the use of outsiders. They said there was ample wisdom on the town board to help guide the selection. The town’s leaders include two former police officers, Allen and Lewis, and a former district attorney, Christina Matheson. The board agreed to this panel makeup previously.
Allen and Lewis missed last week’s meeting. No explanation for their absence was offered.
Matheson volunteered to serve on the panel, and nominated Marion Jones of Jones Country Store. Hensley nominated R.O. Vance of Vance Hardware and Appliance Repair. The nominations of all three, Matheson, Jones and Vance, passed unanimously, 3-0.
While hiring choices and day-to-day management of town affairs usually fall to the manager, a town ordinance stating commissioners shall select the police chief further confused the issue.
Sylva hired its first manager eight years ago, but this represents the first time the manager has wielded hiring power for the police chief. Before, town board members selected the police chief.
Sylva Commissioner Christina Matheson surfaced as peacemaker last week for a town board that, among other matters, has shown signs of fracturing over the best method of hiring a new police chief.
Commissioner Harold Hensley bucked up at a meeting in August after learning about Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower’s plan to use outside help in deciding who would replace Police Chief Jeff Jamison, who retires Oct. 1. Isenhower had informed the board she intended to form a panel made up of herself, two Western Carolina University employees, and the town of Maggie Valley’s police chief.
At that meeting, commissioners Danny Allen and Ray Lewis echoed Hensley’s reluctance to allow Isenhower the full hiring power the town’s charter apparently stipulates. Often, town boards hire their manager, and the manager is in charge of hiring all other positions.
But no one seems entirely sure what the correct legal procedure is for Sylva because a town ordinance has confused the issue. The ordinance states commissioners shall select the police chief.
Hensley, Lewis and Allen emerged as a voting and speaking-in-one-voice bloc after Hensley was appointed in July to fill a board vacancy. This changed the constitution of the board. The minority is now the majority, and Commissioner Stacey Knotts has become the odd woman out after voting “no” to Hensley’s appointment.
Allen, who nominated Hensley for the board seat, upped tensions by sending a letter to The Sylva Herald demanding Isenhower and Mayor Maurice Moody consider resigning if they didn’t “work with us not against us.”
This, after commissioners’ summoned Isenhower behind closed doors for a time following last month’s dustup.
Against this backdrop of internecine warfare, Matheson attempted to throw oil on the water, at times even leaning back in her chair to directly negotiate with Hensley in a semi-private but still legally public manner.
Hensley sits on the other side of the mayor, as do Allen and Lewis, in a tidy but accidental alignment of what actually takes place in the boardroom. So the negotiations were literally, if not figuratively, going on behind Moody’s back.
“My suggestion is, to avoid confusion … we need to get a resolution of our charter, first,” Matheson said.
Matheson, a former assistant district attorney, outlined the following: Respect the autonomy of the manager, but have a board member present when candidates for high-level town positions are interviewed. In the vacancy for police chief, for instance, the number of applicants would be reduced to three by the manager, with the assistance of this special commissioner.
“Narrow the field to the extent the manager could (then) make the decision,” Matheson said.
“I think that’s a wonderful proposal,” Hensley said, as Lewis and Allen nodded in agreement.
Knotts, however, temporarily stymied the prospect of board unity by demanding a larger panel be formed.
“I don’t think one board member should be weeding all the applications down to three,” she said.
Hensley responded the size of the panel didn’t matter to him. He did warn that if too many board members got involved, the necessity of abiding by the state’s open-meetings law would come into play.
Ultimately, commissioners agreed one of them would volunteer for the panel, as originally proposed by Matheson. Additionally, at Hensley’s suggestion and with Knott’s agreement, a local businessperson who is also a town citizen will serve as a third body on the panel. Nominations for this post will be considered at the next meeting.
Isenhower, 27, was hired as town manager in March 2009 by a 3-2 vote of the board. Knotts voted for her, Hensley and Lewis against her. Allen wasn’t yet on the town board. The vote followed the board’s firing of former Town Manager Jay Denton in a controversial and split vote.