Candidates for Buncombe County sheriff and district attorney faced off for the first time Sept. 25 at a forum held at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. Here’s a look at a few of the highlights from the debate, which was organized by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County.
Buncombe County Sheriff
Incumbent Democrat Van Duncan and Republican challenger Mike Bustle clashed over the budget and school safety.
Duncan was first elected Buncombe County sheriff in 2006, succeeding Bobby Medford, who was later convicted of extortion, money laundering and illegal gambling. Duncan said he inherited an office that was in disarray and has since turned it into “an office known for it’s best practices.”
But Bustle, who previously served as chief of the Lake Lure Police Department, said that he’d like the office to shave its budget “and do more with less.”
Asked specifically what he’d cut in the budget and if he’d terminate staff, Bustle said he didn’t know at this time. “It’s difficult looking from the outside in to determine at what point and positions you would cut,” he said. “I’m not interested in cutting any positions at all. There would be a review. I am about saving money.”
Duncan reported that the department’s budget has gone up from $25 million to $32 million. “I feel I’ve been very fiscally responsible,” He asserted.
In terms of school safety, Bustle charged that Buncombe County schools “are far more dangerous than any of the schools in Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham … and these are much larger cities. And yet statistically, we’re far exceeding them on issues of drugs and violence.”
He added: “Give me the opportunity and I will stop these statistical reports.”
While Duncan didn’t disagree that some of the statistics are high, he disagreed with Bustle’s conclusions. Duncan credited school resource officers with doing a particularly good job of reporting problems. “More interacting means more reporting of incidents, and I think that’s what you’re seeing,” he said. “I think our schools are probably the safest in North Carolina.”
Buncombe County District Attorney
Todd Williams beat longtime incumbent Ron Moore in the Democratic primary this spring. And at the debate he emphasized that win as well as his experience as a public defender in his pitch to be district attorney.
In the Nov. 5 election, he faces a challenge from Ben Scales, a local attorney in private practice who gathered more than 7,900 signatures after the primary to get his name on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate. At the debate, Scales emphasized his political independence, saying he “will enforce the law without regard to politics.”
Scales said that under Moore, the office “has an image problem” and an attitude of “stuff ‘em and ‘cuff ‘em.” Scales said he would bring “compassion” to the position, focusing resources on prosecuting violent offenders rather than those accused of nonviolent crimes. “We need to save the handcuffs for people who are actually hurting other people,” he said.
Williams also emphasized the need to “bring a new perspective to the office” in order to restore a sense of integrity.
Both candidates said they supported the work of alternative court programs such as drug treatment courts and veterans court. Williams said he thought the creation of “a mental health treatment court is a fantastic idea.”
Scales said he thinks the DA is “doing good now” on prosecuting cases of child abuse. “The people who are brought up on child abuse charges are the lowest type of people we’ll come across,” he said.
Williams said he’d like to see the creation of a child advocacy center to help ensure children are protected and abusers face justice. Buncombe is the only county in the state that doesn’t have such a center, he said.
Scales’ private practice specializes in representing defendants charged with marijuana violations, and he asserted that currently, “marijuana prosecutions unfairly target black people.” He said he’d change that and work to improve the office’s reputation with minorities.
Asked about their attitudes on pursuing the death penalty, the candidates staked out similar positions.
Scales said he’d keep the option on the table, but added, “The possibility that an innocent person could be put to death should give everyone pause.”
Williams noted that “the death penalty is part of our law” and said he “will swear to uphold the law.” But Williams added that as DA, he would also have a responsibility to “be responsive to the community’s values.”
• For more information on the races on the ballot in Buncombe County for Nov. 4, go to buncombecounty.org.
• Early voting begins Thursday, Oct. 23, and ends Saturday, Nov. 1. For early-voting locations, click here.
• The general election takes places Tuesday, Nov. 4. For a list of locations, click here.
• For more election and voter information, to go “Election Services” at buncombe county.org or call 250-4200.