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Racing towards the sheriff’s seat

The retirement of Jackson County’s current sheriff — and widespread dissatisfaction with the way Jimmy Ashe ran his office — brought out a field of primary election candidates nine deep. And with the general election just around the corner, change is a prime topic of conversation for the two candidates remaining, Democrat Chip Hall and Republican Curtis Lambert.


“First and foremost, I’d be open with the public and with the media outlets,” Lambert said to open his interview with The Smoky Mountain News. “I feel like in the past the sheriff’s department has not been transparent, and I feel like that that’s an important aspect of law enforcement.”

The need for more communication and transparency was an out-of-the-gate point for Hall, too. 

“I want to establish a good relationship with the media,” Hall said. “I want to establish a good working partnership with our local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. That’s a must.” 

Hall and Lambert might have opened their interviews with similar statements, but their backgrounds and perspectives are quite different. Hall, 46, has been with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office since his hiring in 1988, working his way up to his current position of chief deputy. He’s coupled that with a long-time relationship with the Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department, retiring in 2011 after 25 years. 

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Lambert, meanwhile, graduated from Southwestern Community College with an associate’s degree and completed a bachelor’s at Western Carolina University in 1992. He’s served as vice president of a payroll service and has worked in law enforcement for 14 years, including terms with the Sylva Police Department and Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. 

According to Lambert, all those variables between him and Hall break down to one simple question. 

“I think this whole sheriff’s election boils down to, if you like the way that things’ been running, then you need to vote for Chip Hall,” Lambert said. “If you want change and for things to get better, you want to vote for Curtis Lambert.”

As second-in-command to Ashe, Lambert said, not much is likely to change with Hall as sheriff. Ashe’s administration included hallmarks such as using drug seizure money to carpet his office and donate to his children’s sports teams, a traffic stop outside a Latino neighborhood some considered to be racial profiling, absence from county commissioner meetings and criticism by Cashiers residents for not providing enough services to their part of the county. 

But that’s not a fair comparison, Hall said. In his 25 years, he’s worked under three different sheriffs, and each has had his own way of doing things. 

“We’re a lot different,” Hall said of himself and Ashe. “Our personalities are a lot different. I’ve got some new ideas and plans that I want to implement that I think will be good for the office.”

Questions have also been raised about Lambert’s fitness for the sheriff’s seat. A close Republican primary resulted in a second primary being called in July, and Lambert’s opponent in that race pointed out that Lambert had recently been fired from his position with the Sylva Police Department, and no reason had been given to the public.   

“We don’t need no secrets going into the office,” Lambert’s second primary opponent Jimmy Hodgins said this summer. “That’s what we’re trying to get voted out.”

Lambert, however, believes his firing was unjust and has a lawyer working to get the situation reversed. He said that, because of the legal side of it, he can’t speak to specifics but maintains, “I’ve not done anything illegal, immoral or unethical.”

In March, Sylva Town Manager Paige Roberson said Lambert was fired for “job performance” reasons. 

“We are in contact with the Town of Sylva regarding this matter and, as a result, it would be inappropriate to comment on any of the legal issues at this time,” said David Sawyer, Lambert’s lawyer.

And, Lambert points out, he’s got the support of the law enforcement community through an endorsement from the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, a group that includes more than 35,000 law enforcement officers. 


On drugs

Drug use and trafficking has been a much-discussed issue throughout the race for Jackson sheriff, with all primary candidates citing drugs and the crimes their users commit as a top priority for the new sheriff. 

Lambert: Jackson County’s problem has more to do with drug use than with drug abuse. The department should focus on drug users and on rehabilitating them once caught, rather than incarcerating and releasing them, only to jail them again later.

“You’d have to form partnerships with the district attorney and probably the judges to ensure that perhaps some form of rehabilitation is fitted into their sentence, and then ensure that they’ve completed the rehabilitation,” Lambert said. “We’re basically just writing off members of society because they’re not able to follow through with certain things.”

Hall: The drug problem stems from a trafficking issue that affects not just Jackson County, but the region as a whole. Combating the issue will require further nurturing of partnerships with neighboring law enforcement organizations, partnerships that Hall says are in place now. 

“If you have a drug dealer in Jackson County, they’ve got connections and ties in all of the surrounding counties, so good partnerships are extremely important,” Hall said. 

In addition to fostering the law enforcement relationships already in place, Hall said, he’d look to expand the county’s K9 program using some available funding opportunities that he knows of. 


On patrol assignments

Some Jackson County residents, especially those in the Cashiers area, have complained that the current sheriff’s department is not responsive to their needs for patrols and traffic monitoring, especially given that the area’s population multiplies in size over the summer months and therefore needs more law enforcement attention during that season. Both candidates expressed plans to restructure the department to make way for more patrols. 

Hall: Getting more manpower in the criminal investigation unit and restructuring the patrol to put more officers in the streets will be a priority. Hall would look to combine the sheriff’s department’s south and south-central districts in order to have more officers available for the Cashiers area. 

Doing so, Hall said, would allow the department to “expand our area but have more officers in our area so we can reduce the response time if they need assistance in the south end of the county.”

Lambert: Assigning only one officer to the Cashiers area basically amounts to ignoring that part of the county — though the winter population is only somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000, it swells to 15,000 in the summer. As sheriff, Lambert would commit to having a second officer there at least during the summer months, and he has a plan that could possibly result in providing a second officer year-round. The extra manpower could prove especially important during those lower-population months. 

“Rarely do we have break-ins occur with someone at home,” Lambert said. “So if you go from 15 down to 2,000 residents, there’s a lot of people not at their homes down there.” 


On school security

As school violence has become increasingly common in the United States, school security has mounted in importance. In Jackson County, three elementary schools are without a fulltime school resource officer, and both candidates feel that’s a situation that should be addressed. They each have their own ideas about how to make Jackson County schools more secure. 

Lambert: Jackson County’s schools are geographically spread out, which could make quick response difficult from a law enforcement perspective if something were to happen. Smoky Mountain High School is of particular concern because, though it does have an resource officer, it has three completely open entrances. As sheriff, he’d work to collaborate with the school board and administration to address those security issues. 

“I think there needs to be more effort with the Jackson County school board, more planning with each individual school and the principal of each school, and I don’t feel like it should be after something happens we figure out what we did wrong,” Lambert said. “We need to plan for it ahead of time.”

Hall: Getting a school resource officer in every school would be a priority of his administration, and he’d also look into other kinds of security options to compliment the officers’ expertise, such as camera systems. Hall would also reach out to private schools to help them improve their security. 

“We need to aggressively go after every funding resource and opportunity to better secure our schools,” Hall said. “Simply put, any time we get the opportunity, we want to take advantage of it to make our schools safer.”


On communication with the public

Both candidates cited improved communication as a priority for their administration. Ashe’s term as sheriff has been fraught with complaints of scanty response to media questions and an arms-length approach to the public, highlighted by an unimpressive attendance record at public meetings such as those of the county commissioners. 

Lambert: An open-door policy with media outlets would be a hallmark of his administration, and he’d make an effort to attend public meetings, especially those of the county commissioners, which he refers to as “the heartbeat of the county.” By attending those meetings, he hopes to forge working relationships with nearby government and law enforcement agencies and to get a better bead on what the public wants from its sheriff’s office. 

“With the sheriff’s department currently, they don’t have the feel of what’s going on in each community,” he said. “I think by attending community meetings and making myself available to the people of Jackson County we can better attain what the people are wanting.”

Hall: He’d work to establish positive relationships with other law enforcement agencies and with the media, and he’d work on getting the word out online as well. Options would include creating a Facebook page to broadcast updates and putting the latest news up on the department’s website. 

Currently, Hall said, he has “nothing but a good working relationship” with the school board, the town of Sylva and county administration. But communications with local media have “been a challenge,” and he’d work to remedy that.

“I think everybody who knows me knows that I’m very approachable and I’m open to listening to their problems and their concerns,” he said. 


On the jail and justice center

The aging justice center and its less-than-stellar security measures — the only metal detectors are located at the door to the courtroom, but people can come and go freely through the rest of the building — have been the subject of a push by Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts to get a major addition and renovation done to the building. The new sheriff could find himself dealing with sorting out security measures in a new building, and he’d also have to look at some upgrades to the jail, which is outfitted with late 1990s technology. 

Hall: He’s looking forward to working with the county on the justice center project to make sure “it’s done well” — meaning that the building retains as much public access as possible while also jacking up the level of security to something that better ensures the safety of those inside. 

He’d also like to address the technology situation at the jail. It’s a nice, 72-bed jail, Hall said, but the technology was installed when the building was built in the early 2000s. That means that the jail is governed, essentially, by the technology of the 1990s, including analog cameras. 

“It’s becoming a problem, when we have a piece break within our security system, to get something to replace it,” Hall said, “so the sheriff of the future, one of the things they’ll have to look at is upgrading the technology in the jail.”

Lambert: The camera system in the jail is “old, to be nice,” so as sheriff he’d look at getting it replaced.

Another challenge, if the new justice center were to become reality, would be hiring additional officers to take care of security in the building. 

“That’s a situation that will have to coincide with working with the commissioners to possibly hire more people to man those stations,” he said.

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