BRYAN CLARK Spirit Staff
Update – Feb. 1, 9:40 a.m.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued an advisory opinion on the proper process for appointing a replacement late yesterday afternoon, indicating that the Jefferson County Commission should appoint a replacement as quickly as possible.
“After a thorough review of this request, my office has determined that the County Commission must appoint someone to fill the vacancy in the office of Sheriff, and should do so as soon as practicable in order to comply with state law,” said Attorney General Morrisey in a press release. “Moreover, West Virginia Code indicates that the election to fill the remaining term of the Sheriff must be held at the time of the next general election in November 2014.”
CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission is still unsure of the process it will use to choose an interim sheriff to serve until a special election is held in 2014.
The position of sheriff was left vacant after Robert “Bobby” Shirley resigned his post and pleaded guilty to federal excessive force charges in January, only weeks after beginning his second term.
The Commission asked Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Grove two weeks ago to seek an advisory opinion from Attorney General Patrick Morrisey on the legality of holding an expedited special election within the next year. Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Groh, who was standing in for Grove at today’s meeting, said an opinion has not yet been received.
Grove’s legal opinion, which she expressed at the meeting two weeks ago, is that the commission will have to appoint a Jefferson County Democrat to the position.
Whether an expedited special election is held or an appointment is made, Grove has said, state law requires a special election to be held concurrent with the 2014 election. The winner of that election will fill out the remainder of Shirley’s term, and the regular election pattern will resume in 2016.
During the commission’s meeting this week, Commission President Dale Manuel expressed reservations about holding an expedited special election, even if state Code permits it.
“If you went the route of a special election – one before the 2014 election – you would be talking about two elections: a primary and a general election. So you’d be talking about a very expensive process,” he said, estimating the total cost to be around $200,000. “I think that’s a big consideration for this body.”
Commissioner Patsy Noland said she also opposes the idea for logistical reasons, noting that the elected replacement would likely only serve a little more than a year.
“If we hold an election this year, we still don’t have anyone elected to the position before November. And so, you would have a sheriff elected and, basically, serving for one month before we would have to hold another election in 2014,” Noland said. “I honestly understand the concern, but, to me, it doesn’t make sense to hold a special election this year.”
Commissioner Walt Pellish, who seemed to prefer an extra special election to appointment by the commission two weeks ago, had cooled to the idea this week, though he said he is still awaiting the Attorney General’s opinion before making a final decision. “I don’t take spending $200,000 lightly, [though] I would still hold that as an option,” he said.
The commission has been informally accepting applications for the position through the County Clerk’s Office, but has not yet advertised it. The commissioners underlined today that they are not yet sure whether those applicants will be considered for the post.
Pellish expressed theoretical support for another option: keeping Jesse Jones – the department’s chief deputy, who the commission appointed as manager of the department last week – in the position until the 2014 elections.
“There is a very simple solution to the problem, if permitted by Code, and that would be to just extend the temporary appointment that we’ve made until … the general election,” Pellish said.
“I don’t think anyone’s feathers would be ruffled by that” though, he added, “we need a legal opinion on that.”
Commissioner Lyn Widmyer, who said she also opposes a two-special-election process, said she did not think it would be legal for Jones to be left in place that long.
“Our legal counsel said that would probably not conform to the state requirement that we act expeditiously,” Widmyer said, adding Grove advised them Jones could only be kept in that position while legal options are being reviewed.
“I do not think we should have a special election. I think that if we can’t extend Mr. Jones in the position, we are going to have to look very seriously at an appointment, she said.”
Pellish expressed dissatisfaction with the West Virginia Code’s lack of job qualification requirements for an appointed replacement.
“Currently, as I understand the Code, the only thing you need, and the only thing you need to advertise this in the code, is for a citizen of Jefferson County who is in the Democratic Party. Period. It bothers me to the nth degree that there is nothing that demands professionalism, there is nothing that demands a law enforcement background, there is nothing that demands communication skills, people skills. I can go on and on.”
Pellish said he thought the Commission should emphasize these qualifications if they move toward appointing a replacement. “I’m told by Stephanie [Grove] that we as a commission can add those things, and I want to make it clear that, if we get into an appointment process, I’m going to be clearly looking at those kinds of things.”
Commissioner Jane Tabb said she hopes the public will understand the delays in moving toward a permanent replacement stem from the commission’s desire to get the process right.
“[Grove] said there are two parts of the Code that are in conflict, and that is what we are trying to get resolved from the attorney general,” Tabb said. “For the public, that’s why we’re here and why we seem to be delaying or dilly-dallying. We’re not. We’re trying to figure out the proper way to proceed.”