COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Republican Jody Greene is still acting as sheriff of Columbus County, despite word from the state that he should not be sworn in, and Lewis Hatcher should still be in the position.
When the state initially made the statement Thursday, county officials said they were waiting to hear directly from the state on what needed to be done.
Now, those officials have heard from Raleigh but say they don’t have a plan to address the issue.
North Carolina State Board of Elections spokesperson Patrick Gannon said a notice containing the statute that backs up the state’s assertion was sent to Columbus County Manager Mike Stephens.
District Attorney Jon David also said it is up to the county manager and attorney, and it was his understanding they are working with the state board of elections.
Stephens confirmed in a phone interview Friday he did hear from the state, but that it is the county’s understanding that it does not have the ability to do anything about who is serving as sheriff.
If Greene were a certified sheriff, that would be true. State law limits who can remove a sitting sheriff to entities such as superior court and other judicial offices.
However, Gannon said the way the state board sees it, Greene’s election has not become official, and therefore he has never truly been sheriff, meaning he could be removed by the county.
Stephens said he thinks that is up for debate. He said he has spoken with attorneys for Greene and Hatcher, and he imagines this will be headed to court.
On Election Day, Greene led Hatcher by 34 votes, and after a recount, by 37 votes. However, multiple protests were filed with the county elections office in regard to Greene’s campaign.
Those appeals were dismissed by the county, at least one on a technicality, but the parties appealed to the state.
Under normal circumstances, state law requires a six-day waiting period between the time the election is canvassed and the date the certificate of election is issued.
If there is a protest, there must be a five-day waiting period from the date the protest is dismissed.
Greene was sworn in on Dec. 3, three days after the protests were dismissed, and before his certificate of election should have been finalized.
The date itself is not unusual. State law holds that new sheriffs take office on the first Monday after Nov. 30 with the outgoing sheriff typically retiring or resigning on the 30th. But because the five-day waiting period allowing protesters to appeal to the state had not elapsed, Greene should not have been sworn in, according to state law.
When asked about the county not following the legislated protocol, Stephens said that is a question for County Attorney Amanda Prince, who could not be reached for comment.
Additionally, state law requires a 10-day waiting period after the state hears the appealed protest before a certificate can be issued. As of Friday evening, those protests have not been heard, and it could be after Jan. 11 — when the NCSBE holds a hearing on issues in Bladen County — that it considers those items.
In the meantime, Gannon said state law would have Hatcher serve in the capacity of sheriff.
David said until the situation is settled, his office is working with the county to ensure order.
“My office is in close communication with county officials regarding this matter," David said. "Also, we are coordinating closely with our law enforcement leaders to ensure public safety remains our top priority during this period of uncertainty.”
Hatcher told WECT Thursday evening he would be willing to serve if asked to return to his position as sheriff. He also said he is discussing the matter with his attorney, and agrees that Greene should never have been sworn in.