A public records request for Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe’s emails doesn’t tell much of a story — that’s because most of them are missing.
In violation of state law, Ashe deleted all but a few messages from his email accounts.
The Jackson County Sheriff has denied allegations that his department setup traffic checkpoints to racially profile Latinos and find possible illegal immigrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation announced June 4 that it will investigate traffic checkpoints conducted by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Western Carolina University is remaining mostly neutral on the topic of alcohol coming to Cullowhee, at least officially.
“The campus has had alcohol on it for many, many, many years, and I don’t see that changing,” said Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student development. “It doesn’t really make it much better or worse.”
Although the approval of countywide alcohol sales will bring booze to WCU’s doorstep, the vote does not necessarily translate to more underage drinking and other alcohol-related crimes, stated university officials.
“Students already have access to alcohol sold in stores and restaurants just a few miles from campus. The availability of alcohol closer to campus will certainly be more convenient for many students, but we don’t know how or if that will change their behavior,” said WCU Chancellor David Belcher in a statement.
Most other college campuses in the country have stores and bars selling alcohol all around them, yet drinking is not substantially different among students at WCU where it is less accessible, according to a study by the Healthy Campus initiative on alcohol and drug use among students in 2007.
“Alcohol is a tremendous risk factor for our students as it is nationally,” Miller said.
And, like many other colleges nationwide, WCU requires its freshmen to complete an alcohol education program and take tests featuring alcohol-related trivia. The hope is that students will make more informed decisions when considering whether and how much to drink.
“We want to make sure they have good information about the risks of inappropriate use of alcohol,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, we know for many, many of our students, alcohol is part of what they consider the college experience.”
The Division of Student Affairs also offers the “Party Smart” website initiative, which gives students access to advice and information about alcohol.
While WCU isn’t publicly jumping for joy over the arrival of alcohol in Cullowhee, former chancellor John Bardo had openly adopted a pro-alcohol stance in his final years.
Cullowhee lacks a vibrant college town and nightlife scene, and that in turn hurt the university’s ability to recruit and retain students, Bardo had said. Bardo had been looking for ways to incorporate Cullowhee as a town, giving it the ability to make alcohol sales legal.
Four of the six businesses in Cullowhee that have expressed an interest in selling alcohol have hit a stumbling block after Sheriff Jimmy Ashe raised red flags over their locations — namely as being too close to WCU.
Ashe was designated by the county to render an official opinion on whether a particular establishment and its owner should be granted a permit from the state to serve alcohol.
Of the six establishments in Cullowhee that applied for permits, the sheriff offered a “thumbs down” assessment to four of the six for being too close to campus.
“With a 10,000 student population, this agency has already experienced a significant increase in underage drinking, alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related sex offenses at fraternities and even alcohol-related deaths … with my experience of 30 years in law enforcement, this would not be a suitable location for alcohol sales,” Ashe wrote in response to the permit application.
University administrators expressed their appreciation for the sheriff’s concern.
“I think we share concerns about making sure our students are safe and are good neighbors in Jackson County,” Miller said.
No matter what happens with the alcohol permits, however, students will still be expected to follow the same code of conduct as always.
“Regardless, WCU will continue to expect that our students are living up to their responsibilities and are good neighbors to Jackson County residents,” Belcher said in the statement. “We will be following the impact of countywide alcohol sales very closely this fall.”
In 2010, 245 students were referred to the university’s disciplinary board for alcohol-related violations. That is a nearly 100 percent increase from the number of violations reported in 2009 but only up 45 referrals when compared to 2008.
The university has also done its part to vouch for area businesses that were deemed unsuitable for alcohol sales by Ashe.
“The university has been great,” said Jeannette Evans, owner of Mad Batter Bakery and Café in Cullowhee, who is facing delays after getting a negative assessment from Ashe on her permit application.
WCU’s General Counsel Mary Ann Lochner sent a brief letter to the state’s assistant director of ABC permits clarifying that Mad Batter, Rolling Stone Burrito and Bob’s Mini Mart — all of which have applied for alcohol permits — reside more than 50 feet from the entrance of the nearest building on the college’s campus. The letter refutes an assertion by Ashe that the businesses sit too close to the school.
Ashe filed reports stating that the three business are “located within 50 feet of educational institution properties in which 80 percent of the student population being potential customers are underage thus bringing on the problems of underage consumption and alcohol-related crimes involving persons underage.”
Despite her hard feelings about being denied a temporary permit for the time being, Evans said she does not feel like her business nor Cullowhee were singled out during the application process. The denial simply delayed the process, she said.
Evans traveled to Raleigh on Thursday to formally apply for a temporary permit with the state, which makes its own determination regardless of Ashe’s opinion. Evans called applying with the Sheriff’s office a “colossal waste of time.”
Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe was stripped of his appointed role to render thumbs-up or thumbs-down assessments of businesses wanting to sell alcohol.
Jackson County commissioners, who had initially appointed Ashe to the role, voted this week to instead make County Manager Chuck Wooten the go-to local official in the permit process.
Ashe indicated in a written statement last week that he didn’t really want the responsibility anyway.
The vote Monday to relieve Ashe of the position was a 3-2, down party lines. The two Democratic commissioners voted to keep Ashe, also a Democrat, in the position.
The issue of revoking the job from Ashe was originally not scheduled for discussion at the meeting. However, complaints from the community prompted the board to add the topic at the last minute.
Commissioner Joe Cowan acted surprised when Chairman Jack Debnam asked for a motion to swap Ashe for Wooten as the county appointee regarding alcohol permit matters. Cowan asked to put the vote off for another couple of weeks.
“Could we possibly postpone this item until the next meeting to give us time to read these?” asked Cowan. “I just got these resolutions, and I have not had time to read them or study them.”
Cowan then made a motion to postpone the decision until the board’s next meeting. Commissioner Doug Cody retorted that the resolutions only take a moment to peruse.
“These resolutions are about one page in length. I mean, how long does it take to read them?” Cody said.
Cody, Debnam and Commissioner Charles Elders voted against delaying the matter, and the three then succeed in pushing through the resolutions. Both Cody and Debnam previously expressed a desire to oust Ashe as the county designee following complaints from business owners.
Commissioner Mark Jones sided with Cowan.
“On the quick read, I disagreed,” Jones said, adding that he felt there was no need for a change since all the applications were processed in a timely manner under Ashe.
Specifically, Ashe’s role was to render an opinion on whether the owner and location of an esablishment wanting to sell alcohol was appropriate. If Ashe approved, that business could get temporary permit to sell alcohol while it waits for the much longer process to get a permanent permit from the state ABC Commission.
In a statement written May 30, Ashe stated that processing the permit applications, which requires background checks, interviews with community members and a visit to each location, is time consuming, and a change in appointee would allow his office time to conduct other duties.
“It would be more beneficial to my office to allow the county commissioners to assume the responsibility as the designee for the local government opinion form,” Ashe wrote. The statement wasn’t specifically addressed to anyone but apparently had been sent to commissioners.
Wooten will now take on the responsibilities of the county designee, though he has the option of appointing his own designee. Wooten indicated that if the applications became overwhelming, he would consider naming Gerald Green, the county planner, to the position.
Almost a month ago, Jackson County voters approved the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages by nearly 60 percent. And soon after, business owners rushed to file their applications for alcohol permits.
One of the first stops in the paperwork trail is to secure the blessing of Sheriff Jimmy Ashe.
However, Ashe filed unfavorable opinions about six of the 12 businesses that have applied so far. Those businesses have since gone over Ashe’s head to temporary permits directly from the state.
Four of the six that got a thumbs down from Ashe were in Cullowhee. Ashe didn’t like their proximity to campus for fear it would encourage underage drinking. One in Cashiers was turned down because of the applicant’s criminal record.
The sheriff also turned down Catamount Travel Center convenience store on U.S. 441 just outside Cherokee, citing its proximity to Cherokee, which is dry. Ashe did not deem it fitting for a gas station just over the line in Jackson County to start hawking beer and wine on Cherokee’s doorstep, particularly when Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted a resounding “no” to the sale of alcoholic beverages in a ballot measure of their own in April.
Despite Ashe’s opinion, the state ABC Commission rather promptly issued the gas station a permit to start selling.
“Sales have done real well,” said Jamie Winchester, whose family owns the travel center. “It’s been really good.”
Who has it so far:
In Cashiers, Cornucopia Gourmet, Cornucopia Cellars, Cashiers Farmers Market, Ingles grocery, Orchard Restaurant, and Cork and Barrel. In Cullowhee, The Package Store and Sazon Mexican Restaurant. In Tuckasegee, Caney Fork General Store. In Whittier, Catamount Travel Center.
Who’s still waiting:
Bob’s Mini Mart, Mad Batter, Rolling Stone Burrito and the Catamount Travel Center, all in Cullowhee.
Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe is refusing to grant permits for businesses wanting to sell alcoholic beverages despite voters overwhelmingly approving countywide alcohol sales when the issue appeared on the ballot earlier this month.
With Jackson County no longer dry, more than a dozen businesses have jumped on the booze bandwagon, from grocery stores to gas stations to restaurants, hoping to add alcohol to their coolers and menus. But so far, Ashe has balked at signing off on the needed permits.
In response, county commissioners are considering whether to strip Ashe of the authority and appoint someone else to oversee the permits instead.
“This caught all of us by surprise,” Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said of the board of commissioners. “I guess Sheriff Ashe has his opinion about whether Jackson County ought to sell alcoholic beverages, and it didn’t really matter what the wishes of the people were.”
Voters approved the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages May 8 by nearly 60 percent. Since then 13 businesses in Jackson County have started the application process. County commissioners must appoint someone to oversee and approve those applications.
Last week commissioners voted to have Ashe handle what’s known as the local government opinion part of the process — essentially a formality in which a local official says whether they approve of the applicant and of their particular location.
Ashe, however, has taken his authority to a new and unexpected level. The sheriff turned down Catamount Travel Center convenience store in Whittier, for example, citing its proximity to Cherokee, which is dry. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted a resounding “no” to the sale of alcoholic beverages in a ballot measure of its own in April. Ashe apparently did not see fit for a gas station just over the line in Jackson County to start hawking beer and wine on Cherokee’s doorstep.
“Cherokee Indian Reservation as a sovereign nation recently voted down alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary, which was a strong message from that community that it was not wanted or needed,” Ashe wrote in a letter last week to Catamount Travel Center regarding the reasons for disapproval.
Additionally, the sheriff wrote that 1.7 million people annually travel by this location going to the reservation, and that letting the Catamount Travel Center sell alcohol would create “traffic problems and an overwhelming amount of motor vehicle accidents.”
Ashe asked the county commissioners for a budget increase to hire eight new deputies following the passage of countywide alcohol sales, claiming that establishments selling alcohol would place additional demands on his patrol units. Commissioners are taking a wait-and-see approach, however, to determine whether the need is in fact there.
Ashe also rejected Catamount Travel Center’s request to sell alcohol at its Cullowhee location near Western Carolina University. In that case, he said the business was “located within 50 feet of educational institution properties in which 80 percent of the student population being potential customers are underage thus bringing on the problems of underage consumption and alcohol-related crimes involving persons underage.”
The sheriff said that “with a 10,000 student population this agency has already experienced a significant increase in underage drinking, alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related sex offenses at fraternities and even alcohol-related deaths … with my experience of 30 years in law enforcement, this would not be a suitable location for alcohol sales.”
Ashe also turned down Bob’s Mini Mart, located in a strip mall on campus known as the “catwalk,” for essentially the same reasons. Owner Bob Hooper said that the sheriff claimed the business was within 50 feet of the university. Hooper said that it is not.
Most other college campuses in the state, if not the country, have stores and bars selling alcohol all around them, yet drinking is not substantially different among students at WCU where it is less accessible, according to a study by the Healthy Campus initiative on alcohol and drug use among students in 2007.
Whether Ashe would apply his reasoning to blacklist any and all gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants wanting to serve alcohol in the greater Cullowhee area is unknown. Ashe did not return a phone message seeking comment for this article.
Nor is he returning messages left by Debnam either. Debnam called looking for some answers about what’s going on.
Debnam said that while the full board of county commissioners must make the decision, he for one is leaning toward picking someone else to handle the local application procedure. Commissioner Doug Cody said the same thing.
“We don’t have to have him do it,” Cody said. “There’s other options out there if this is going to be a problem for him.”
Ashe’s refusal to approve the applications is delaying the process but not stopping it. That’s because local business owners have the right to appeal the decision directly to the N.C. ABC Commission, which many of them are doing.
Hooper wasted no time bypassing Ashe and going straight to Raleigh. After getting his letter of denial from Ashe on Thursday, he was on the road to Raleigh the next morning to appeal to the N.C. ABC Commission. ABC agents plan to hear the appeal within a mandated 21-day period, he said.
“We’re going to get it, but it’s going to be a little slower,” Hooper said of his permit to sell.
Dwight Winchester, owner of the two Catamount Travel Centers, also drove to Raleigh on Friday, challenging Ashe’s denial of permits for both his Cherokee and Cullowhee locations. He received permission to start selling beer in his establishment outside Cherokee. He’s still blocked for now on the Cullowhee one, but he’s optimistic the ABC Commission will reverse that decision, too.
“He’s doing this to everyone in Cullowhee,” Winchester said of Ashe’s decision to deny him the permits.
Winchester said the state plans to investigate for itself whether his convenience store in Cullowhee is an appropriate location to sell beer and wine despite Ashe’s claims.
“What he wrote is factually incorrect. That’s what pissed me off with the sheriff,” Winchester said.
Ashe also claimed that allowing Catamount Travel Center in Cullowhee to sell alcohol would impede emergency responders at the Cullowhee Fire Department, that the fire department itself has protested against this location selling alcoholic beverages and that this would increase the probability of more alcohol-related accidents at the main intersection of the university.
Agnes Stevens, spokeswoman for the state ABC Commission, said it’s standard procedure for the state to do its own research if an applicant objects to having their permit denied at the local level.
“While local governments have a voice, the commission has the final say,” Stevens said.
Other business owners are gearing up to sell alcohol but aren’t yet ready equipment-wise, so the delay hasn’t impacted their bottom lines.
Jim Nichols, who owns an Exxon service station and a BP service station in Cashiers, said space is tight at the Exxon and that readying the store for beer coolers is going to require some expansion. He believes being able to offer beer to customers will help his businesses.
“If I had a nickel or dime for every customer who walked through that door looking for beer, wine or wine coolers, I’d have a lot of dough now,” Nichols said. “When we say we don’t have it, their faces show bewilderment — because this is a resort town.”
Jeannette Evans, owner of Mad Batter Bakery & Café, believes the availability of alcoholic beverages will help all of Cullowhee, not just her restaurant.
“I think of it as a chance to expand the vitality of the area and to expand the energy at night,” she said. “People like to sit down and have a glass of wine or a beer. I do think it’s part of dining out in the evening.”
Here’s who has applied in Jackson County to begin selling alcoholic beverages.
• Catamount Travel Center, Cullowhee
• Bob’s Mini Mart, Cullowhee
• Sazon, Cullowhee
• The Package Store, Cullowhee
• Mad Batter, Cullowhee
• Rolling Stone Burrito, Cullowhee
• Caney Fork General Store, Tuckasegee
• Tamburini’s Restaurant, Cashiers
• Cornucopia Cellars, Cashiers
• Cashiers’ Farmers Market, Cashiers
• The Orchard, Cashiers
• Ingles grocery, Cashiers
• Catamount Travel Center, Cherokee
Exactly how many businesses have had their permits denied isn’t known. Sheriff Jimmy Ashe has not responded to requests that public records on this matter be released.
Comments by Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe about a rape victim published in the weekly Cashiers newspaper two weeks ago have sparked protests from local and state groups that combat sexual violence, as well as individuals from the Cashiers community.
The news article, printed under the banner headline “Alleged sexual assault reported,” appeared in the Aug. 24 edition of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle. It included a blow-by-blow account, attributed to the sheriff, of the rape victim’s long evening of barhopping and heavy drinking in the hours leading up to two men following her home and breaking into her house. The 34-year-old woman told deputies one man raped her while the other waited for him to complete the act.
Critics have reacted angrily to the tone of Ashe’s comments. They said the sheriff seemed to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the woman’s rape claim. The news article also emphasized that several hours passed before the woman reported being attacked and discussed, at length, her level of alcohol intake that night.
“It painted the picture of someone who is lying, or who was to blame for anything that happened,” said Monika Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Now in Jackson County, if I’m a woman and I’ve been drinking or gone to the bar and been sexually assaulted, I know what’s going to happen if I report it.”
Ashe said he’d provided the Chronicle’s reporter a factual recounting as the victim relayed the situation to law enforcement. After the sheriff indicated that he had not read the article — “I know what I said, I don’t know what they printed” — a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News read the article from the Cashier’s paper, in its entirety, aloud to him during the course of a cell-phone interview late last week.
Ashe was asked whether he wanted to correct any inaccuracies or misquotes in the newspaper’s report. The sheriff neither disputed the accuracy of the article nor asserted that he’d been misquoted. Kelly Donaldson, editor of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, declined to comment, which is the policy of the newspaper’s parent company, Community Newspapers Inc. of Athens, Ga.
Ashe emphasized that he did not intend to indicate that the woman’s barhopping brought on the sexual assault. A suspect, Efrai Ubera Morales, 30, of an Amethyst Drive, Cashiers, address, was arrested 16 days after the attack on a charge of first-degree rape.
“I’m not saying (the victim) went out and asked to get raped, but we can’t change the facts from what she told us,” Ashe said. “That’s the truthful statement from the victim.”
Hostler and other critics, however, said Jackson County’s top law enforcement leader and the way the newspaper article was framed crossed serious moral and ethical boundaries. In the end, according to Hostler’s assessment, an innocent victim appeared on the front page of her local, hometown newspaper (circulation 3,200) in substance, at least, judged responsible for a sexual assault.
The woman was not identified by name in the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle’s report, which is standard practice by most news organizations when reporting on sexual assaults. But in that small community in southern Jackson County, who she is and where she lives rapidly became public knowledge.
The article and the sheriff’s comments outraged Mary-Allyson Henson of Cashiers. She blames both Ashe and the newspaper equally for heaping further abuse on a woman who’d suffered through a sexual assault.
“There are no circumstances that would justify a woman being violated, period,” said Henson.
In fact, however, Henson said the victim was a friend who rarely goes out, and who had simply wanted to enjoy the evening celebrating another friend’s birthday.
Almost from the beginning of the news article, the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle focused on the woman’s actions that night.
“Though the assault occurred at the home, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe said that the night consisted of trips to multiple bars, which may or may not have been where the perpetrators encountered the victim,” the Chronicle’s article stated in the first paragraph.
The newspaper and sheriff also elected to tag the woman’s report an “alleged” sexual assault.
“It actually started at an individual’s house consuming alcohol,” Ashe was quoted as saying. “From there, the victim went to the Sapphire Mountain Brewing Company, and from the brewing company it went to the Gamekeeper where a birthday party was going on for one of her friends. There was continued consumption of alcohol during that course.”
When the article was published, detectives were hoping to locate surveillance video that would reveal the suspect’s identity, which is perhaps why Ashe elaborated on the victim’s schedule that night. He did not say that, however. Ashe did defend the use of the word “alleged.”
“It is ‘alleged’ until we can prove that it happened,” Ashe told The Smoky Mountain News. He does not apparently agree that the use of the word “alleged,” when attached in this manner to a victim’s report of sexual assault, might cast doubts on whether law enforcement believed the woman involved.
Generally, newspapers use the word “alleged” when referring to someone charged with a crime. A suspect can allegedly commit murder, but the murder itself is not alleged. The murder happened. The only uncertainty is who did it. If arson was committed, or a theft occurred, those crimes are not alleged. They occurred and are treated as facts. A suspect later charged with the crime allegedly committed it until a court of law proves them guilty.
Ashe, via the Cashiers newspaper, then described the actual rape.
“She said that two Hispanic males entered her home,” Ashe told the Chronicle. “She was not sure how they got into the home; there was no forced entry. One of the Hispanic males forced her to the floor and had sexual intercourse with her in the bathroom area. … She was able to send a message from her cell phone to the friend, whose residence she was at previously, and said something to the effect that she was being assaulted.”
The newspaper reporter then wrote: “According to Ashe, it was not until the following morning when one of the victim’s friends convinced her to go to the hospital for a rape kit, around 6 a.m., that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office was contacted in regards to the assault.
The article then quoted Ashe directly as saying: “’During his whole time, no one had contacted law enforcement: not when she was being followed, not when the assault occurred, not after she had a conversation with her friend on the phone who she spoke to. During none of this time had any law enforcement been contacted. It wasn’t until she had a female friend who she was talking to convince her that next morning around 6 a.m. that she (needed) to go to the hospital and be checked.’”
Later in the newspaper article, Ashe is quoted as saying the victim provided “very vague descriptions,” and that she knew one of the Hispanic males involved went by the alias or nickname of “Drug Boy.”
Brent Kinser, president of REACH of Jackson County’s board of directors, said in an email interview with the The Smoky Mountain News that he wasn’t “sure in whom I am more disappointed: the sheriff, Mr. Ashe, who made the statements, or the writer … who presented them in such a clearly accusatory way.”
REACH is a nonprofit that works to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Surely neither of these good men intended to imply that this victim had it coming to her, and yet the article reads in such a way that lends itself to precisely that interpretation. The only question here is the guilt or innocence of the perpetrators of this crime,” Kinser wrote. “The victim is only that, a victim, whether she decided to enjoy herself with friends at one location, or several, alcohol present or not. It is indeed painful to see yet another case of sexual violence in which a victim, in addition to all else, will now have to find some way to forgive herself, since according to this article, she behaved in such a way to invite the assault.”
Kim Roberts-Fer, executive director of REACH, said that “victim blaming is definitely the issue here.”
“It was reported that there were trips to multiple bars, with extensive information on alcohol consumption,” Roberts-Fer said. “It leads one to believe that if you consume alcohol you deserve or can expect to be raped. Not only is this information irrelevant, it actually is giving false information to the public, by implying that if you don’t consume alcohol you can somehow avoid being raped. This is not true — anyone can be raped, under any circumstance, and the one responsible for the rape is, very simply, the rapist.”
There aren’t any strip joints, dirty bookstores or other adult establishments currently in Jackson County, but Sheriff Jimmy Ashe wants regulations put in place ... just in case.
Passing an adult establishment ordinance, Ashe said this week to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, is “more of a preventative matter” at this juncture.
“I think we are just getting ahead of the game in case this is ever facing us,” the sheriff said. “It may never happen, or it may happen in five years.”
Besides, Ashe added, “I think this is the Bible belt of North Carolina, and we have traditions and cultures here.”
And those traditions and cultures apparently don’t include off-color shim-sham shops.
Ashe said he became concerned about the lack of regulations in Jackson County when Harrah’s Cherokee Casino started work on being allowed to serve alcohol. About that same time, the state loosened laws on alcohol-serving clubs, and Ashe said he started getting concerned.
The Jackson County Planning Board put together an ordinance with the guidance of County Planner Gerald Green. Commissioners decided to hold a public hearing March 7 at 1:30 p.m. on the proposed regulations.
Green explained the ordinance, if adopted, would require businesses pay a $5,000 fee to open up, and entertainers $2,500 each to strut their stuff. The county-issued licenses would be good for one year before requiring renewal, at 50 percent of the initial fee. Other requirements would include criminal-background checks, buffers from institutions such as churches, and standards on “touching” and “covering.”
Jay Coward, newly hired to serve as Jackson County’s attorney, will receive $175 an hour, commissioners agreed in a unanimous vote this week.
He’ll also serve the sheriff’s department when the sheriff and his deputies need legal advice.
Coward, a Republican, replaces Paul Holt, a Democrat. The change is one of the outcomes of the upending of Democrats and their long hold on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Voters in November sent three Democrats packing, and elected Jack Debnam, an officially registered but GOP-backed-Independent chairman, and Charles Elders and Doug Cody, Republicans, in the ousted Democrats’ place.
Democrat Sheriff Jimmy Ashe seemed thrilled Coward was again part of the county government family. He lauded the longtime attorney and former commissioner for bringing a breadth of wisdom and experience to the county’s law needs.
Additionally, Coward served as an excellent reason for Ashe to dump his own hand-selected attorney, Mark Welch. Coward, Ashe said, “will be able to accommodate our needs.”
In 2008, the sheriff requested commissioners (Democrats all, then) give him a full-time sheriff’s attorney. They said OK. The sheriff’s department attorney answered directly to Ashe, and, according to the sheriff’s department website, helped with daily legal matters.
This week, however, what was once cited as a critical need (rising foreclosures, among other reasons) gave way to, the sheriff said, more pressing department priorities.
Welch was paid $67,237 a year. With a cost savings of more than $9,000 tied to his erasure as a county employee, commissioners went along willingly with Ashe. But not before new Commissioner Doug Cody queried the sheriff on this change of heart.
Cody asked if Ashe’s newfound ability to rely on the county attorney for legal advice meant the foreclosure rate had decreased. No, Ashe replied, it is still increasing in Jackson County.
But property crime is also escalating. And some of the savings, with commissioners’ approval, went to fund a realignment of sheriff’s department personnel. Those changes, Ashe said, will help the department in its fight against crime — more, apparently than a staff attorney would.
Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe won his third term in office Tuesday, easily beating back a challenge from political newcomer Mary Rock.
Ashe, 51, a Democrat, has been in law enforcement for 29 years. He started in 1981 as a dispatcher and jailer for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, working his way up to the top post. Ashe made stops along the way as a detective and as chief deputy.
Ashe has initiated a slew of anti-illegal drug programs in Jackson County, an inmate-work program and more, which — in addition to his years of experience — he emphasized strongly and repeatedly during his campaign.
Earlier headline-generating news that Ashe used state and federal money from narcotics seizures to operate an informal fund for youth sports apparently didn’t deter voters.
Rock, a registered Democrat, ran as an unaffiliated candidate. She hoped by doing so — by avoiding being beaten by Ashe in the May primaries — she’d give voters more time to get to know her before the midterm election and increase her odds of winning.
Rock, a professional bail bondswoman, is a U.S. Army veteran who served in the military police for two years, and spent an additional five years in the reserve.
Is Mary Rock paranoid, trying to garner a sympathy vote? Or is her opponent for sheriff, incumbent Jimmy Ashe, really targeting her by destroying campaign signs?
Over the past week or so, three signs — the large ones, which cost about $100 each — encouraging voters to cast their support for Rock have been defaced or cut up. One near Cullowhee Valley School, where early voting is taking place, has been hit twice. This last time nothing was left, she said, but the backboard.
(Rock called The Smoky Mountain News on Monday to complain after being requested to let this newspaper know if something additional happened. This after two signs were ruined at an earlier date).
Rock said she might simply take a spray paint can and scrawl the words, “Vote for Mary Rock” on the backboard. That, she said, would be difficult to destroy. It certainly would be cheaper. And, something that easily could be done before the November election. You wouldn’t believe how much time it takes, she said, to get those campaign signs back after you order them.
Ashe did not return a call by press time Tuesday requesting comment.
Rock, 43, is a professional bail bondswoman making an initial bid for public office. She wants to become the first female sheriff in Jackson County. Doing so won’t be an easy task — Ashe is a two-term incumbent and Democrat in a Democrat-heavy county. Rock is running unaffiliated with any political party. But really, she is a Democrat, too, and is registered with the board of elections as such. Rock picked this route to give voters more time to get to know her, because she figured she’d get knocked out of the race in the May primaries if she ran as a Democrat.
Rock said she believes Ashe, his supporters, or both are trying to get her to “have to deal” with the sheriff’s department. The proper route for Rock would be to file complaints at the sheriff’s department, which she said would simply set the stage for further discomfort or even harassment.
“I can see why no one runs for public office,” Rock said of her experience.