Two of Buncombe County’s most powerful officials are waging a very public battle over control of the Sheriff’s Office.
A complaint from a resident that Buncombe County deputies were using their patrol cars to take their kids to school set off an initial round of sparring between County Manager Wanda Greene and Sheriff Van Duncan. The resulting avalanche of e-mails has included both them and the county commissioners.
The fight boils down to who controls the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on public safety annually, and it’s being waged by Duncan—an elected official who’s the county’s top law-enforcement officer—and Greene, the county’s most powerful administrator. The issue has added significance for the Sheriff’s Office, which has been working to restore its reputation following the arrest and conviction of former Sheriff Bobby Medford on federal charges related to illegal gambling.
“It’s a control issue,” Duncan maintains, saying Greene wants “to force me into that old way of doing business, and I’m not willing to do that.” Greene says she’s not interested in running Duncan’s department but is trying to help him administer an agency that’s unfamiliar with budgeting. “I think they’re inexperienced, and they don’t ask for any help,” she asserts.
A long-standing departmental policy, allowing deputies with take-home vehicles to drop off their children at school, says Duncan, improves the department’s visibility without incurring any liability beyond what’s already involved if, for example, a deputy transports a member of the public after a traffic accident.
“I realize there might be some potential liability there, but it’s never cost the county any money,” says the sheriff. “We encourage our officers to be a presence in schools. We felt like we get enough positive to outweigh the negative.” Duncan says he often drops off his son at Erwin Middle School on his way to work, asserting that it’s time well-spent, because his presence there provides a positive influence.
Greene, however, maintains that sheriff’s deputies should adhere to the county’s general policy barring nonemployees from operating or riding in county-owned vehicles. The policy allows department directors to grant exceptions, and it specifically allows sheriff’s deputies to give rides to citizens in emergencies. But in tough economic times, the county should look hard for ways to save money and reduce liability, says Greene, who wants the policy clarified.
“We want the officers to be responsible and be safe,” she notes.
An advisory group consisting of county employees is reviewing the policy and studying possible changes. It will make recommendations to the commissioners, who will have the final say. Duncan says he would stop allowing his deputies that leeway if Greene could show that the practice increases the cost of liability insurance. Greene says that changing the insurance policy to cover the practice would cost the county $100,000 to $500,000 more in annual insurance premiums.
Vehicles aside, Duncan says he’s expressed repeated concern over his ballooning budget. Greene, he charges, has been playing a “budget shell game” that includes adding positions he didn’t ask for and that, in some cases, he didn’t think were necessary. The sheriff’s budget is one component of the overall county spending plan, which is prepared by Greene and approved by the Board of Commissioners. In an e-mail to the commissioners, Duncan wrote that he and Greene “have reached some unsurpassable differences with the way she administrates the budget,” asking for a closed-door discussion. But Duncan says he was subsequently advised by the county attorney that state law would not permit this, and at press time, he had yet to meet with the commissioners.
Greene, meanwhile, e-mailed her detailed response to the commissioners, emphasizing that Duncan has overspent his budget by $2 million over the past two years and urging the commissioners to meet with the sheriff about it.
“Budget’s not his strength,” Greene told Xpress.