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Editorial: Election vs. selection

The nearly simultaneous resignation of the area’s top two law enforcers this week will give the public an opportunity soon to realize how differently North Carolinians choose sheriffs and police chiefs ó one by election and the other by selection.
But first, the news. Sheriff George Wilhelm surprised everyone by giving county commissioners his two-weeks notice Monday. His questions about retirement benefits and vacation pay had made the move appear imminent, but only he knew how imminent. The sheriff has another year in his term, but he has appeared to be on the way out for several months, handing over his most visible duties to Chief Deputy Kevin Auten. Is the sheriff ready for greener pastures, or is something else in the works, something related to the SBI investigation of his secretary? Eventually that will become clear.
Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm has sent fewer signals that his tenure was coming to an end, but his resignation Tuesday does not come as a complete surprise, either. After working in the trenches of law enforcement for decades, he rose to the top of the police department to fill a very challenging role. Though he earned the position and has done a competent job, he does not seem to relish the role. Retirement surely looks attractive to a person dealing with gangs, drugs and complaints about police brutality.
Now city and county must find replacements. In the city, the search may include advertisements to attract top candidates, a screening and interviewing process and perhaps even some meet-and-greet sessions with citizens. Experience and training will mean a lot. Then, with input from City Council, the city manager will choose the person he believes is most qualified for the job, and that person will answer to him.
Sheriffs are another matter entirely ó elected officials with broad powers and virtually no supervision. State law spells out very few criteria for the job. You have to be 21 or older and have lived in the county for at least a year. Other than that, a majority vote by the citizens of the county is all it takes to become sheriff. Once elected, the sheriff answers to no superior except the voters, who get a chance to re-elect or oust him every six years.
That sounds like a poor process for hiring and supervising the top law enforcement officer in the county, also responsible for the jail and the courts. But that’s the way it has been in North Carolina for more than 200 years, and it’s not likely to change. So it’s up to voters to set their own criteria and elect someone with the experience, leadership and intelligence to do a good job.
The sheriff’s and chief’s departure will signal the end of an era in more ways than one. This may be the only time in Rowan history that the two top officers shared the same last name. That has confused a lot of people, even though the two are very different. Soon the confusion will be over, and new people will step into these roles. Let’s hope they are selected and elected with great care.

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