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Jackson sheriff race down to Buchanan, Farmer

Rick Buchanan (left) and Doug Farmer. Rick Buchanan (left) and Doug Farmer.

With the impending retirement of Jackson County Sheriff Chip Hall, two candidates will compete for the seat this fall in the General Election. While their careers and background vary greatly, both men have vast experience in law enforcement.

For Democrat Rick Buchanan, his long-term experience in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is what sets him apart from his opponent. He has been serving his community as a member of the Savannah Volunteer Fire Department for over 35 years and has been employed at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office since 1991, working under several different sheriffs. He said he has paid attention and learned from their successes and failures. It is this insight, he believes, that makes him uniquely prepared for the job. 

“I have 30 years of law enforcement experience, and every bit of it has been with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office,” said Buchanan. “I am currently employed with the sheriff’s office, so I have the most-up-to-date and current knowledge of the issues it faces. That’s what makes me a candidate that stands out.”

On the other hand, republican Doug Farmer sees his varied experience in different facets of law enforcement as vital building blocks that make him ready to be sheriff. Farmer began his law enforcement career with 11 years at the Macon County Sheriff’s Office. Following a short stint with the Highlands Police Department, Farmer spent a year in Iraq training that country’s police. In 2010, he went to work for the Sylva police Department, where he remained until he retired in 2019. 

Both men have lived and breathed law enforcement for most of their lives, becoming interested in the field in grade school, when the appeal of helping others took hold. The bottom line for both men? Serving others and helping their community thrive.

“My desire to help people has never changed,” said Farmer. “As I get older, the more resolve I have to put myself out there and help people. That’s one reason I’m running, because I feel that people need help right now.”

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“The reason that I started law enforcement is I’ve always wanted to help,” said Buchanan. “I started my emergency management career when I became a volunteer fireman; that led into my career with the sheriff’s office. I started in high school as a volunteer junior firefighter, then I got involved with emergency management, liked that type of work. I’ve always wanted to help people. And I like to see now that I’ve done it for 30 years, it’s pretty rewarding work when you get somebody and you can help change their life or make a difference in their life. So that’s why I do it.”

As the general election draws closer, both candidates have been on the campaign trail for months, and they confirmed that the issue they hear most from voters is drugs. What will the new sheriff do about drugs in Jackson County, about the opioid epidemic that has morphed into the fight against fentanyl and heroin?  

Buchanan plans to run an interdiction unit to combat the drug issue. This is a two-step process. The short-term goal is to target certain locations, find drugs coming into the county and stop the flow. The long-term goal is far-reaching investigations. Buchanan said these drug cases can take several months to work to get to the right people. 

If elected, Farmer wants to take an aggressive, targeted approach to going after drug dealers in Jackson County. Part of that will include community patrols, something Farmer said there isn’t much of in Jackson right now. He would like to see deputies patrolling not just the main roads, but also more remote secondary roads.  

This summer Jackson County received its first of 18 payments in part of an opioid settlement that will total over $3 million. The money comes from a $26 billion agreement involving the role of four companies in perpetuating the opioid epidemic. 

Farmer says he hopes to see collaboration from several community stakeholders. 

“The more minds that you have working on these things, the more beneficial it will be,” said Farmer. “Tapping into mental health officials, those that will be involved in rehab. Everything is not about enforcement. And I understand with people who have substance abuse disorders, they’ve got to seek help. But over the years, our mental health funding has dwindled, and I think when the assistance there

Buchanan recognized the body of work that lies ahead for the next sheriff, and the county as a whole.  

“That’s something that will involve sitting down with the county leaders, the town, other law enforcement agencies within the county, police departments, Western Carolina University, and I hope that we can all come up with a plan that fits the majority of the people in the county to help the biggest portion of those folks,” said Buchanan. 

Another issue voters are concerned about is jail safety. In June, Eddie Columbus Taylor died while in custody at the Jackson County jail, marking the fourth jail death since 2014. The county has since purchased a body scanner, at a cost of $148,730. Detention staff will be trained by the vendor this month and it will be fully operational on Sept. 29. 

The State Bureau of Investigations is still investigating Taylor’s passing, and a cause of death has not yet been made public. However, both candidates for sheriff spoke to the importance of adequate searches to ensure prisoners are not smuggling contraband into the jail. 

“Even though you have somebody in custody, you’re trusted with their safety,” said Farmer. “We’ve got to take every precaution we can to make sure that the search techniques you’re using are correct. If you have a work release that’s coming in and out and you think it’s the work release that’s the issue, then number one will be to shut that work release down. Number two, talk to whoever’s in charge during that shift, find out the issue. Ultimately, if it happens in your jail, you’re responsible for that death. So we’ve got to make sure that people are trained well. Prisoners transporting contraband inside their bodies has been a thing that’s been ongoing,” said Farmer. “Your search techniques have to be spot on because they’ll do a lot of different things that you aren’t expecting them to do.”

“There’s nothing that takes the place of training your employees,” said Buchanan. “Since then, the county has purchased an x-ray machine. It’s not a pretty thing that individuals when they’re arrested or brought into jail are strip searched and everything like that, but you still may miss something because you can’t look everywhere. With that being said, I think the body scanner is going to aid and help, but again, people have to be trained in that, and nothing takes the place of training.”

While Buchanan and Farmer have been on the campaign trail, they have also been hearing from residents about the population of homeless people in Jackson County. At an August meeting of the Town of Sylva, one resident spoke about his concern with the number of panhandlers at the intersection of Asheville Highway and East Main Street. 

This year, HERE (Housing Equity Resources and Education) of Jackson County held a community work session to determine the best path forward in combating homelessness. The idea was that the session would provide input for the decision-making process and county support for a homeless shelter. 

According to data from HERE, the organization provided emergency homeless services to 197 people — 149 adults and 48 children — in 2021. Families made up one-third of those experiencing homelessness. Of the total population assisted, 30% reported a mental health or substance use disorder, 62% were from Jackson County, 56% had zero income, 23% were fleeing domestic violence and 31% reported a chronic health condition or physical disability. 

Farmer is opposed to the idea of a homeless shelter in Jackson County. 

“We don’t have a shelter, and I don’t think that’s the answer,” said Farmer. “If you have a shelter, then you would draw even more. I know they have some availability during the winter, they try to house some of them. And I’m not sure where all they are coming from. I’ve heard some of them are being dropped off here, they end up here, we’ve got some staying in little camps, in different communities and abandoned houses, so that’s a problem we’re going to have to address at some point.”

Buchanan is more on the fence about a possible shelter. 

“I believe it is crucial to help anyone from our local community who is suffering from circumstances beyond their control that have resulted in them being homeless,” said Buchanan. “There are a variety of different opinions and studies on why criminal activity typically occurs around homeless shelters. But the fact remains that it does occur. This is a delicate situation that involves so many different factors that must be considered to protect the safety of residents so as not to create an undue burden on the taxpayers and citizens of Jackson County. Everyone must come to the table and be a part of this discussion. This includes mental health services, juvenile services, social services, law enforcement, emergency services, the Sylva Town Board, Jackson County commissioners, the health department and child advocacy services. We have to work together to find the best possible solution.”

Regardless of the outcome of this contest, voters should expect a sheriff that is invested in listening to the needs of the community as both candidates have made this a central piece of their campaign. 

“We’re sworn to protect the citizens of the county,” said Buchanan. “Protection is a big part. Service is another big part. We’ve got to be available for the public to ask us questions, to provide them the help that they need, or to recommend the places they might need to go when we cannot help them.”

“I think the most important part of being sheriff is listening to what communities are telling you,” said Farmer. “I know the sheriff has many roles that he plays, but I think the people of Jackson County are the ones that put you in that office, they trust you with that office, so your ear should be there to listen to them and who better to know what’s going on in their communities than the people inside.”

One-stop early voting runs Oct. 8 through Nov. 5, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Election Day is Nov. 8; polling places will be open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Check your voter registration, view your sample ballot and find your assigned Election Day polling place at jcncelections.org.   

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