PENDER COUNTY — As four-termer Pender County Sheriff Carson Smith eyes a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives, candidates Alan Cutler (R) and Lawrence Fennell (D) prepare to compete in the November elections for the county’s top law enforcement position.
The winner will take charge of an office that oversees North Carolina’s second fastest growing county, with the needs of tourism-dependent beach towns on the coast historically at odds with those of inland rural farm communities. Although five times larger than New Hanover, at nearly 1,000 square miles, Pender has only one-fifth the population. As such, manpower has been limited in part due to the county’s relatively low population density.
What sets you apart as a candidate?
Cutler: I have 28 years of law enforcement experience with both the sheriff’s department and highway patrol. A good portion of that has been in Pender County — I know the county and I know the people in the county, and I really want to be focused on the community aspect of law enforcement here.
Fennell: Mr. Cutler has a big base of fans, and I may look like the underdog. All I ask a person to do is, at night, think about how you would feel safer: with someone from highway patrol or someone who knows the sheriff’s department, someone who serves the citizens of our county? No disrespect to him or the highway patrol, I love those guys. But at the end of the day, we have to look at who’s best suitable to fit this job, and I am.
I’ve done ten years at Sampson County [Sheriff’s Office]. It’s time for me to come home now and finish out my career.
As lessons from Hurricane Florence continue to materialize, how do you feel Sheriff Carson Smith’s office handled the crisis?
Fennell: One issue is communication, which we have seen has failed Pender County in this recent disaster. This is something that the sheriff has not stepped up to the plate and addressed on key issues. We have people sitting there looting in certain communities, and what are we doing? We are allowing this to go on. This is something that needs to be addressed.
Social media, Twitter — these things are disposable. People should be able to get on their cell phones and see what the sheriff’s plans are. There are so many things not being utilized in Pender County, it’s just breathtaking. I’m appalled by it.
Cutler: We need to look into some federal programs and equipment, more boats and other types of water equipment, obviously with a flood situation. In terms of manpower, I think they utilized what they had to the best of their ability. I just think federal programs are necessary to provide more equipment in the future.
School shootings have become a central issue for police and sheriff’s departments across the U.S. If elected, how would you address safety concerns in Pender County schools?
Cutler: I would boost the presence of law enforcement at our schools, and bring in joint multiagency programs to cover provision and response to active shooter situations.
Fennell: Include proper training for school resource officers and for the facility and the staff there. Work on the drugs, suicide, bullying — issues we need to bring to the school board, teachers, our school resource officers, and sit down at the table and work out. I don’t see any of that going on right now.
How would you address the state’s opioid crisis that has affected residents in Pender County?
Fennell: It’s not just opioids — we have a meth problem as well. I remember at a forum at a Baptist church to explain the opioids, when [Sheriff Smith] talked about it, he flat out said, “We don’t have a drug problem.” Well, we do have a drug problem here in Pender County.
Our sheriff at Sampson has implemented different programs to fight the crisis. Here in Pender, they have none of those resources. Why? There are no outside agencies reaching in and helping Pender County — the DEA, U.S. Marshall, FBI — agencies out there willing to come in and help the county. But if the sheriff will not open the door and let them come in and help us, how are we going to get the help?
I have been working with different organizations [in Sampson] that can help us with this opioid problem. We cannot continue locking people up for drug problems … If you are a user, I am willing to help you get the help you need.
Cutler: We need to focus on the drug problem in general, mainly the opioid epidemic. We need to implement community awareness programs and tackle enforcement with the dealers. There are some really good volunteer groups as far as recovery programs are concerned — and possibly some recovery options for people while they are incarcerated, so we can give them a good head start on getting off these drugs when they do get back in the general population.
In closing, each of the candidates addressed an issue they felt would be important during their term as sheriff if elected.
Cutler addressed rapid growth in Pender County. Fennell addressed unified eastern and western parts of the county.
Cutler: I would implement traffic programs mainly focused on U.S. 17, I-40, U.S. 117, and U.S. 421 — some of the major roads that represent a big traffic problem in the county. I look forward to dealing with these problems on a much broader platform, and try to get more manpower out on the road. It’s only going to get worse in Pender County as we move ahead.
As an area, I don’t think we’ve planned for this kind of growth, as far as our road infrastructure and enforcement is concerned. The sheriff department needs to catch up first and then continue to grow along with the growth of the county — in everything, community patrols, neighborhood patrols, just presence in the county in general. They’re so short-handed, they’ve just not maintained growth along with the growth of the county.
Fennell: We don’t have enough patrol to really manpower both sides. I have a plan to help both sides, because I don’t believe in division … I want to be the sheriff for all citizens in Pender County, to work across party lines. One thing I’ve learned is that we can’t allow division to bring a wedge between us. We may not agree on everything but I’m willing to sit down and listen and negotiate what’s best for my county.
I can understand that there’s an underground, good ole boys’ system that nobody wants to change. But we need to modernize the sheriff’s department into the new age. We cannot continue to operate in the eighties and nineties ways of doing things, when all surrounding counties have now moved into the 21st century.
This is not about me, it’s about the changes I want to bring to Pender County. It’s time for a change. I’m willing to run this office not as a dictatorship but as an office for the people.