CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission has asked Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to weigh in on the legality of holding a special election for sheriff ahead of the 2014 general election.
The request, made by commissioners following the resignation earlier this month of Sheriff Robert “Bobby” Shirley following his pleading guilty in U.S. District Court to felony deprivation of rights, has been asked because of a possible contradiction between two sections of the West Virginia State Code that deal with vacancies in elected office.
“The code section indicates that the commission makes an appointment until the next general election,” said Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Grove, who serves as the commission’s counsel. “There is another piece of Code at the beginning of the same Code section, which says that if there is more than one year remaining on the term, you have to hold a special election.”
Grove said an opinion from the attorney general could be as many as two weeks away.
“It will take some time to get an opinion back,” she said. “As soon as we get the attorney general office’s opinion back, the commission will be ready to move forward.”
But it is not clear whether the commission will support such an election, even if it is found to be legal, if another special election would have to be held again in 2014.
Several commissioners expressed hesitancy to call a special election in mid- to late-2012 if the winner of that election would have to run again in 2014.
“The issue on having an extra special election is whether it will carry through the full term, or just for two years until the next election,” Commissioner Lyn Widmyer said. “Because to have a special election until the next general – it won’t work,” Widmyer said. “We’ll have the election the day before [the next election]. The timing needs to be thought about.”
Grove said she believes the commission is charged with appointing a replacement sheriff until the 2014 election, when a special election would be called to fill the remaining two years of Shirley’s term. She said this process is the one outlined in both the Constitution and the section of state Code that specifically deals with vacancies in the sheriff’s office.
Commissioner Walt Pellish said he believes the commission should move forward with a special election now if it is allowed to.
“I find that hard to believe in light of the precedent that was set with [Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in 2011],” he said. “When the governor left office, and the logical thing to do seemed to be to appoint a successor to [the position], we wound up in this whole gyration of lawyers and court issues.”
“To me, this thing is even more critical, and I hope the word comes back that we can do it,” Pellish said. “This is such a hot-button issue out there in the community, and we have such a black eye, that I think it behooves us to do it.”
Grove noted in an interview that the court decision that triggered the 2011 Special Gubernatorial Election was triggered by a conflict between state Code and the state Constitution.