In coming weeks, voters get to determine who will lead Buncombe County’s most powerful law enforcement and legal agencies.
In the race for sheriff, incumbent Democrat Van Duncan faces a challenge from Republican Mike Bustle. And in the district attorney contest, Democrat Todd Williams is vying with unaffiliated candidate Ben Scales. The contenders debated for the first time at a Sept. 25 event organized by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County. The next day, they held a rematch at a forum hosted by the Council of Independent Business Owners.
Over the course of both events, the candidates staked out different positions on a wide variety of issues, setting up battle lines for what’s likely to be an intense last month of the campaign season.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights from those debates.
Buncombe County sheriff
Duncan and Bustle clashed over the budget, school safety and law enforcement priorities.
A native of Spruce Pine in Mitchell County, Duncan was first elected Buncombe County sheriff in 2006. He succeeded 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 its best practices.”
As proof, he cited a range of national awards and honors the department has received under his leadership.
But Bustle, who was born in Buncombe County and served as chief of the Lake Lure Police Department from 1998 to 2006, said that he thinks the sheriff’s budget has gotten too big. He wants the department “to do more with less.” He added: “You have to be frugal with taxpayer funding.”
Since he took the reins, the department’s budget has gone from roughly $25 million to $32 million. An increase in officers, training and equipment is responsible for the growth, he said. The department grew from about 360 employees to 430 employees, said Duncan, defending the changes as a good investment necessary to keep the area safe. “I feel I’ve been very fiscally responsible,” he said.
However, Bustle questioned Duncan about a 2011 decision to “give upper staff $13,000 in raises, ignoring the rank and file.”
Duncan replied that he gave the raises after learning that his majors were being paid less then the county’s pay scale recommends. He also said they deserved the money for taking on an “increasing work load” because he had reduced the overall number of administrators. At the same time, Duncan took a voluntary 5 percent pay cut “because it was hard times” for the county and the local economy, he said.
In turn, Duncan asked Bustle specifically what he’d cut in the budget and if he’d eliminate programs or staff.
“I’m not about eliminating services at all,” Bustle answered. “I want to increase services. … I’m not looking to cut any position. But I see many things that can be controlled.”
Bustle alleged that some officers are being allowed to drive patrol vehicles “where they shouldn’t be driven.” He added, “Some of the officers have never owned a personal car — what does that tell you? Things like that can be changed.”
In terms of school safety, Bustle also 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.”
Duncan didn’t disagree that some of the statistics are high, but he disagreed with Bustle’s conclusions. Crediting school resource officers with doing a particularly good job of reporting problems, Duncan said, “More interacting means more reporting of incidents, and I think that’s what you’re seeing. I think our schools are probably the safest in North Carolina.”
Bustle insisted that “the most serious crime in our county is the violence in our schools. It cannot be allowed to fester any more.” He said the other biggest local law enforcement challenges include identity theft and meth labs.
The sheriff’s department has confiscated $28 million in drug-seizure money over the years, said Duncan, who reported that most meth in Buncombe County is being produced in Mexico rather than local labs. The use and dealing of narcotics is the county’s biggest problem, driving a wide range of other criminal activity, from breaking-and-entry to murders, said Duncan. “Almost without exception, there was a drug or narcotic nexus that was driving those crimes,” he said.
The department works with a long list of partners and schools “to do everything we can do to prevent it,” Duncan said.
But Bustle insisted he could do better. “We must look ahead. We cannot look backwards,” he said. “I can protect you.”
Buncombe County District Attorney
In May, Williams beat longtime incumbent Ron Moore in the Democratic primary, winning 68 percent of the vote. And at the September debates, he emphasized that voter endorsement as well as his nine years of experience as a public defender.
Scales also claimed broad community support. He mounted the largest write-in campaign in recent history this spring, gathering more than 7,900 signatures to ensure his name would be on the fall ballot as an unaffiliated candidate. Scales touted his political independence, saying he “will enforce the law without regard to politics.”
In their dueling cases to voters, each candidate emphasized that he’d make major changes to the DA office, which is charged with handling all criminal cases filed in the local superior and district courts.
Under Moore, the DA’s office had “an image problem” and an attitude of “stuff ‘em and ‘cuff ‘em,” said Scales. He would bring “compassion” to the position, he said, 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” to restore a sense of integrity. But he challenged Scales to explain what he meant by “nonviolent crimes,” worrying that it could mean he wouldn’t prosecute those convicted of drug dealing, DUIs or statutory rape.
Scales replied that those crimes would be vigorously prosecuted, saying they have clear victims and “harm the fabric of our communities.” (See Oct. 1 update at the bottom of this post for more on this interaction).
In his private practice, Scales focuses on representing defendants charged with marijuana violations. He said that what he meant by “victimless crimes” is “the private personal use of cannabis, and … medical marijuana.” Scales said that his office would not prosecute those charged with marijuana crimes under specific circumstances: if the amount of marijuana in position is less than felony levels, intended for “private, personal use [by] an adult who is otherwise law-abiding.”
Other marijuana infractions “would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Scales said. He added, “Prescription pills are a way worse problem than marijuana and that would be a strong emphasis in my office.”
Scales also asserted that under Moore, “marijuana prosecutions unfairly target black people.” Scales said he’d change that and work to improve the office’s reputation with minorities.
Taking a more traditional position, Williams countered, “The law is black and white. … In regard to marijuana, the law will be enforced.” But he did agree that “the bigger problem is pills.”
Both candidates also agreed to support the work of alternative judicial 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.
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.”
UPDATE Oct. 1:
In the phrasing of his question to Scales about what he considers a victimless crime at the Sept. 26 CIBO forum, Williams stated: “Many crimes are victimless, such as many DUIs … all failure to register as sex offender offenses, statutory rape. Many crimes don’t necessarily have a victim or you have a victim that has consented such as a drug sale.”
A video of the statement (see below) has drawn criticism from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Association to Protect Children. In a letter to Xpress, Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children, writes: “It is a DA’s job to prosecute crimes against our daughters. When law enforcement officials secretly harbor attitudes like these, it’s chilling enough. Todd Williams just told you to your face how he thinks. Believe him!”
Williams responded to the criticism in a statement to the Asheville Citizen-Times: “There are no victimless crimes,” he’s quoted as saying in the paper. “My opponent is running on a message of not enforcing laws he calls victimless crimes. I was trying to make a point that there are no victimless crimes, to make the point that I will enforce our laws. I asked a gotcha question and it got me instead.”
Video of the statement embedded via the WPVM.fm Ustream channel.
Watch video of the entire CIBO candidate forum here:
Video embedded courtesy of Davyne Dial Ustream channel.