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Under new law, counties can appoint 'acting' sheriffs and prosecutors

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2007, then-Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Bill Charnock abruptly resigned, leaving the county courthouse in disarray. 

Assistant prosecutors weren't sure whether they had the authority to proceed in criminal cases without a sitting prosecutor. Circuit judges cancelled their criminal dockets. The Kanawha County Commission was forced to move quickly to appoint a new prosecutor.

"The prosecuting attorney's office was considered nonexistent because there was no prosecuting attorney," recalled Carrie Clendening, the commission's legislative liaison and grant coordinator. "A prosecutor's assistants derive their authority directly from the elected prosecutor."

Last week, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law a bill (SB527) designed, in part, to give county commissions more time to deliberate appointments when replacing elected officials -- prosecutors, sheriffs, county clerks, assessors and surveyors -- who suddenly leave office.

A section of the new law allows county commissioners to name temporary "placeholders" to elected officer vacancies until permanent replacements are found to fill those seats. The permanently appointed officials serve until the next election. 

Under the new law, county commissions can appoint "acting' county officers immediately, but must vote on permanent replacements within 30 days. The acting officeholders may apply for the permanent jobs.

"It's an important decision, and it deserves reflection," Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said Wednesday. "Before, there was no way to do a temporary appointment."

Charnock's sudden departure -- his resignation was effectively immediately, and he left his office under pressure without a properly appointed prosecuting attorney -- wasn't the only case that sparked the new appointment law.

In Wayne County, Clerk Robert "Bob" Pasley abruptly retired in late October 2008, leaving the county without its head election official just days before the general election.

"It kind of made you have to act fast and make a hasty decision," Clendening said.

Last year, Jefferson County's sheriff resigned amid scandal. County commissioners wanted to take their time, solicit applicants and interview people for sheriff -- but the county technically had no sheriff until a permanent replacement was appointed. 

In April, Mingo County's commission moved swiftly to replace Sheriff Eugene Crum, who was shot and killed outside the county courthouse. Days later, Crum's wife was appointed sheriff. She had no background in law enforcement, but apparently will serve as sheriff until an election is held next year.

"There's actually no provision in law for anyone to act as sheriff -- or any other county official -- so this placeholder designation gives a county commission some time," said Patti Hamilton, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties, in an email. "The temporary appointee allows the commission the time to make a more considered decision on who will be appointed to the position, if they so choose."

The new law also will apply to circuit clerk appointments -- though the chief circuit judge makes that call.

Clendening said county commissions throughout the state supported the change.

"It ensures the continuity of government," she said. "It keeps the office up and running. It's a safety net."

Carper said the new law also would make appointments of elected officials to fill vacancies more transparent. The Kanawha County Commission plans to interview future applicants for such positions in public. Carper expects other commissions to follow suit. 

"Under the new system, I think you'll get better candidates," Carper said. "When you're appointing someone to such an important office, the public absolutely should be able to weigh in on the decision."

The bill signed by Tomblin last week also amends unexpired term election provisions for statewide constitutional officers, circuit judges, Supreme Court Justices, state senators and House members. The legislation requires the use of regularly scheduled primary and general elections, reducing the number and expense of special elections.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.

 


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