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Hovis, Spencer grapple with election issue

Questions

Sharon Hovis

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SPENCER — Sharon Hovis expected a roadblock or two on her way to holding a historic position on Spencer’s Board of Aldermen. She just didn’t expect it to happen the way it did.

Hovis, elected on Nov. 7, will be the first African-American on the board in Spencer’s history. Hovis received the most votes in the race, which could earn her the title of mayor pro tem if the board follows tradition.

After her victory, Mayor Jim Gobbel and the town’s other five board members welcomed her. But just before Thanksgiving, Hovis and the town were told there might be a problem. An email from the State Board of Elections said that Hovis could not both hold elected office and continue as East Spencer police chief.

“It caught us way off guard,” Gobbel said.

The email was sent to Town Manager Reid Walters and the Rowan County Board of Elections. Walters then informed Hovis and Gobbel.

According to Josh Lawson, legal counsel to the State Board of Elections and Board of Ethics, Hovis would violate Article VI, Section 9 of the state Constitution if she held both positions.

The law declares positions such as chief of police and auxiliary policeman to be “offices” similar to an elected office. While a police chief can be appointed to and hold another office concurrent with his job, he cannot be elected to office.

According to emails obtained by the Post, Lawson said Hovis had a choice: quit her job as chief of police or give up her seat on the Board of Aldermen.

“The burden would be on the town council to ensure it seats only eligible individuals,” Lawson wrote in the email, “and Ms. Hovis may become eligible by resigning her position on the police force (or by becoming an auxiliary policeman) in East Spencer.”

It left Hovis, and Spencer officials, scratching their heads. Hovis said she could understand if she worked for the town of Spencer, but East Spencer is a separate municipality. And Hovis’ position as police chief is one for which she was hired, not elected.

Hovis said she was also concerned because several other law enforcement officers in Rowan County currently hold elected office. Mike Caskey, a member of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, is an officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department; Travis Allen, a member of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, works with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.

“Why the question?” Hovis asked.

According to Lawson, the State Board of Elections’ counsel office received an anonymous call from someone believed to be a Spencer resident inquiring about Hovis’ eligibility. Lawson said his email to the county Board of Elections and to Walters was meant to be purely informational.

“There had been an inquiry, and our effort was simply to notify folks,” he said in a Friday phone interview.

Hovis reached out to an attorney, and the town of Spencer reached out to a contact at the N.C. School of Government for guidance.

The law in question was enacted in 1971 and appears to conflict slightly with a 1985 opinion of the Attorney General’s office, which affirms that police officers can indeed hold public office. The opinion, however, does not mention chief of police.

Initial information from the School of Government seems to support the State Board of Elections’ findings.

“So I think at this point she would have to either resign her position as police chief or refrain from taking the oath. … It’s unfortunate that candidates are not informed of these types of conflicts when they file,” Frayda Bluestein, professor of public law and government at the School of Government, wrote to Walters.

However, a 1978 attorney general’s opinion on the 1971 law, written by former Attorney General Rufus L. Edmisten, is in direct conflict with situations like Caskey’s — even going so far as to use a similar example.

“Thus, should the person in question be elected to the office of county commissioner, he would, upon acceptance of said office, be disqualified to serve as a municipal police officer,” the opinion reads.

Back and forth emails obtained by the Post seem to conflict as officials, lawyers and others try to untangle the law and its intentions.

Lawson made it clear that it is not his — or the State Board of Elections’ — job to enforce the law.

“We wanted to make folks aware that there is a statute; it exists,” he said by phone. “What happens next is up to the courts and the agency — the town council.”

Hovis said her determination is not diminished.

“There’s still no question in my mind,” she said. “This is a democracy. I was elected.”

Hovis, Gobbel and Walters met with Spencer Town Attorney F. Rivers Lawther Jr. to try to come up with a solution. On Thursday, the town released his opinion.

According to Lawther, Hovis’ right as a U.S. citizen to hold elected office is protected by the U.S. Constitution, which supersedes any state law.

“While the law cited by the election officials may appear to support that (1978) opinion, it is clear that the only reasonable interpretation of that law would be to prohibit dual office-holding within the same jurisdiction,” Lawthers wrote. “To preclude someone from having an unrelated job in another jurisdiction can only be classified as arbitrary and capricious.”

Spencer is using Lawther’s interpretation as the town’s official position on the matter.

Hovis said she is relieved that the issue is resolved and thanked Spencer and her soon-to-be fellow board members for their support. Fellow aldermen told her they were happy to see her elected, she said.

“I’m happy. I look forward to working with them. I look forward to giving back to the community I grew up in,” she said. “If that community believed in me enough to elect me, I’m going to do everything I can to prove that they were right. … This is not about me; it’s about trying to make a difference.”

And this hang-up will not stop her from moving forward, she said.

“We’ve still got things to do — and that’s to make Spencer a great place to live,” she said.

Hovis will be sworn in at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at Town Hall, 600 S. Salisbury Ave.

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