First black alderman in small NC town is challenged for being a - | WBTV Charlotte

First black alderman in small NC town is challenged for being a cop

(Hovis) (Hovis)

ROWAN COUNTY, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - Sharon Hovis celebrated after leading the Nov. 7 ballot for alderman in the Rowan County town of Spencer. But within days a problem arose: Hovis is also the police chief of neighboring East Spencer, and state law appears to say she can’t serve both.

Spencer officials have defended Hovis in exchanges with the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, which pointed out the legal conflict. They say she’ll take office this month as planned and, after winning more votes than her five colleagues, will likely be named mayor pro tem.

Hovis, who would be Spencer’s first black alderman, still wonders why she’s the first Rowan County law enforcement officer to be challenged for holding elective office. She believes that whoever raised the issue with the elections board did so for personal but unknown reasons.

“It was baffling and disappointing why there was even a question about this,” she said Friday. “Why somebody does what they do, I don’t know. Racial motivation is the simple answer, but is that the answer? I don’t know.”

“It was baffling and disappointing why there was even a question about this,” she said Friday. “Why somebody does what they do, I don’t know. Racial motivation is the simple answer, but is that the answer? I don’t know.”

“It was baffling and disappointing why there was even a question about this,” she said Friday. “Why somebody does what they do, I don’t know. Racial motivation is the simple answer, but is that the answer? I don’t know.”

The Army and 27-year law enforcement veteran was named East Spencer’s chief two years ago. Spencer is a town of about 3,300 that is best known for the vintage locomotives at the N.C. Transportation Museum.

Other law enforcement officers in Rowan County have served for years on local elected boards.

Two sheriff’s deputies, both white, have served on Spencer’s board in recent years without question. A part-time bailiff employed by the sheriff’s office, who is black, now serves on the East Spencer board.

But the state law in question doesn’t apply to sheriff’s deputies, a UNC School of Government expert says.

The law says police officers, chiefs of police and auxiliary officers may hold other appointive offices, but that only auxiliary officers may hold elective office. Experts differ on how to interpret the law.

A 1978 attorney general’s opinion said the law prohibits police officers, other than auxiliaries, from holding elected positions. A 1985 opinion said police officers are free to hold elective office.

The state elections board said it only certifies election results, but advised Spencer that Hovis can’t legally take office while she’s police chief. A UNC School of Government expert on legal aspects of city government, Frayda Bluestein, agreed.

Hovis “is not unqualified to serve, and she should be issued a certificate of election,” the state board’s general counsel, Josh Lawson, wrote in a Nov. 17 email. “She is simply prohibited by law from serving in both capacities.”

Both Lawson and Bluestein said it was up to Spencer to decide what to do next.

On Thursday, Spencer town attorney Rivers Lawther concluded that the only “reasonable interpretation” of the state law is to prohibit holding dual offices in the same jurisdiction.

“To apply the North Carolina law to prevent (Hovis) from serving on the Board of Aldermen for the Town of Spencer would violate her rights protected by the U.S. Constitution,” Lawther wrote.

Hovis is ready to move on and said other members have welcomed her to the board. She still doesn’t know the motive behind the challenge to her taking office.

“What I do know,” she said, “is that I get sworn in on Dec. 12.”

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