An announcement on Saturday, March 6, by Chris Thomas that he would seek the office of Onslow County sheriff may have taken some folks by surprise.
At the time, the man who hired Thomas and promoted him to colonel in the department, Sheriff Hans Miller, had not formally announced he would not be seeking a third term. But apparently, Miller’s announcement came at about the same time with published reports indicating he would support Thomas, an Onslow County native. (See related story.)
The news officially broke at a meeting of the Onslow County Republican Party. It is big news for the coming election cycle in the county, but also raised questions about the upcoming county and municipal elections in general.
While Thomas has thrown his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination, he has yet to officially file for the office. And the fact is, it is unclear exactly when he can file, and that to may be a surprise to some folks.
The preliminary election schedule is up in the air, according to Jason Dedmond, director of the Onslow County Board of Elections.
He said that filing for the sheriff’s race, which and offers a term of four years, is tentatively scheduled to begin in December, should things fall into place. For now though, no filing period can be scheduled.
“Due to the coronavirus, the census numbers are not finished yet,” Dedmond said last week.
Census numbers affect any municipality with districts or wards, so elections can’t be scheduled until those boundaries are redrawn. In Onslow County, Jacksonville elects its council by wards.
In the past, Dedmond said, when census numbers were delayed, some local government elections were delayed and some were not.
Under the current situation though, the State Board of Elections is proposing legislation that will keep all elections together – delayed – as a way to reduce any confusion in the upcoming voting cycles, according to Dedmond. That could mean all elections are delayed, perhaps for a year. The census data will not be available until September at the earliest.
“All of our elections schedules are in limbo,” he said.
Had things gone as planned with the census, the primary for the partisan sheriff’s office would be in March 2022 with the general election in November 2022.
Swansboro’s 2021 elections for mayor and commissioners are at risk as a result of the delay in the census delay.
Swansboro elects members of the Swansboro Board of Commissioners every two years. Terms of office for the mayor and commissioners are four years and two years.
The mayor serves a four-year term as do two of the three commissioners in each election. In the commission races the candidates earning the most votes serve four years and the candidate placing third serves two years.
Under this format, a majority of the voting members is elected every two years. Office holders with terms ending in November include Mayor John Davis and Commissioners Laurent Meilleur, Larry Philpott and Pat Turner. Commissioners P.J. Pugliese and Frank Tursi were elected to serve through November 2023.
Chris Seaberg, town manager, said he has been in touch with the board of elections about the possibility of this year’s election being delayed.
He pointed out that Swansboro’s commission members are elected at large and the race is considered nonpartisan.
“Obviously, Swansboro is not affected (by the wards or districts issue),” he said. “But it may fall under a state mandate. And we are a creature of the state. They haven’t given us any information yet.”
Dedmond said plans are in place to proceed with municipal elections this year, just in case. Assuming that happens, filing would open in July.
“I’ve budgeted like we are having an election this November,” Dedmond said. But, he added, “This is all up to the state board.”
Should the N.C. General Assembly heed the request of the state board and delay all elections for at least some time beyond November 2021, the state would likely have to address the expiration of terms to allow for the delay, according to Dedmond.
Pat Gannon, public information officer with the State Board of Elections, said the outcome hinges on the state as well as local governments.
“That is going to be up to the General Assembly and/or the individual municipalities,” Gannon said in an email. “We do not know at this point, but there has been and will continue to be a great deal of discussion among the municipalities, the General Assembly and the State Board as to the best path forward.”
Thomas’s announcement in advance of the filing period is not unusual, and the state board of elections has rules in place for the action.
Dedmond said that any citizen who publicly announces candidacy for an office must open a campaign finance account within 10 days of the announcement.
Thomas announced on Saturday, March 6, and opened the account on Monday, March 8, according to Dedmond.
Thomas serves as second-in-command of the largest law enforcement agency in the county, according to his press release. He has served in law enforcement for more than 34 years, beginning in 1986 after graduating Basic Law Enforcement Training at Coastal Carolina Community College. He is a U.S. Army veteran, serving from 1983 to 1986, earning an honorable discharge as a Specialist 4th Class.
Thomas said in the press release that the citizens of the county “deserve experienced leadership and service to lead the sheriff’s office.”
An Onslow County native and resident of the Richlands area, he said his local roots “run deep and help him to understand and relate to the unique needs of the citizens of Onslow County.”
“Onslow County is a diverse community with dynamic needs,” Thomas says, adding that he also brings the kind of experience and leadership the county deserves.
His goal as sheriff is to advance training, technology, services and programs “to continue the positive advancements that the agency has made.”
While the announcement did come a few weeks after the sheriff was involved in a minor car wreck that went unreported for about 24 hours (see related story), people close to the situation said the car wreck and Miller’s decision to not seek a third term are unrelated.
Onslow County Commissioner Paul Buchanan said Miller’s decision was actually made when he first ran for the office.
At the time, Miller said he would only serve two terms, according to Buchanan.
In an email, Miller said he finalized that decision in 2020, “because I accomplished what I set out to do.”
He said he sought the office because he saw a need to modernize.
“I had a vision and strategy of how to get it done,” Miller said. “Many policies, training, equipment, personnel issues and a streamlined re-organization were needed … and other initiatives to bring our office into the 21st century.
Furthermore, he said he full supports Thomas in his quest for election.
“I know him to be a highly experienced, able, knowledgeable, honest, motivated person who shares many, if not all, of my philosophies,” Miller said of Thomas. “He has over 35 years of honorable law enforcement service.
“I plan to help (and) support Chris Thomas after he takes office. He knows all the requirements of the position, such as jail operations, patrol, civil, court security, investigations and much more. I am very confident that Sheriff Chris Thomas will serve the people of Onslow County very well as their sheriff. And I know him to be a very trustworthy man of high integrity.”
Email Jimmy Williams at email@example.com.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the March 17, 2021, Tideland News.