Auten takes over as acting sheriff

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 30, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Kevin Auten, a 21-year veteran law enforcement officer, is now the acting sheriff of Rowan County.
At the stroke of midnight Monday, Auten replaced George Wilhelm as the county’s top law enforcement officer. Wilhelm opted to retire after 11 years as sheriff, leaving one year left on his third term.
County commissioners are in no hurry to fill the vacancy.
“That’s why there is a chief deputy. He’ll be fine. It’s business as usual,” Carl Ford, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said Monday.
The county has received legal input from County Attorney Jay Dees and an attorney representing the N.C. Sheriff’s Association.
If Rowan County still had an elected coroner, that person would become sheriff until commissioners filled the position, according to state law.
Since Rowan long ago abolished the corner’s post, the chief deputy will perform the duties of sheriff until commissioners appoint someone to fill the seat.
The Sheriff’s Association suggested commissioners take at least 30 days to fill the vacancy.
In a memo to commissioners, Dees advised commissioners they can elect a new sheriff at the board’s Dec. 7 meeting or make no decision and let the chief deputy continue to “discharge the duties of sheriff” until such time as the board wants to elect a new sheriff.
Ford acknowledged that one option could be to allow Auten to continue as acting sheriff until December 2010, when a new sheriff takes office after the November elections.
Wilhelm recommended the appointment of Auten.
Ford said a majority of the board is likely to ask the Republican Executive Committee for a recommendation on filling the seat.
Ford said the board is not in a rush. “This is a big decision,” he said.
He also noted the discussion and selection process will be public.
Since the sheriff’s post is an elected office, it doesn’t fall under personnel laws that allow the board to meet in closed session. “It all has be done in open session,” Ford said.
The next sheriff likely won’t be making a much as Wilhelm, who received $103,000 annually.
Under state law, commissioners must set the salary for the sheriff before the filing period for the upcoming election.
Previous commissioners have lamented that they didn’t set a lower salary in 1998 before Wilhelm ousted longtime sheriff Bob Martin.
Wilhelm began his first term at the salary Martin had achieved after 12 years.
“The salary will be reduced,” Ford said.
But that likely won’t lessen interest in the job.
During the past week, Ford said he’s had numerous phone calls and e-mails, as well as hearing from residents personally about the sheriff’s job.