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Conversation with Avery County Sheriff Candidate Lee Buchanan

By Tim Gardner

There is a hotly-contested race this year to fill the position of Avery County Sheriff. Three Republican candidates are seeking the position-Lee Buchanan, Mike Henley and Russell Carver.  Mike Ellenburg also filed to run for the post, but later withdrew his candidacy. All three candidates have varied experience working in law enforcement as does Ellenburg. Ironically, only Ellenburg has served as Avery Sheriff, filling the position on an interim basis several years ago.

High Country Press reporter Tim Gardner interviewed the candidates, asking the same ten questions of each. At this end of this article are those questions submitted to candidate and current Avery Chief Deputy Lee Buchanan and his answers, while responses from Henley and Carver to the interview questions will be also published soon.

Long-time Avery Sheriff Kevin Frye retired from the post earlier this year to become Director of Criminal Justice Programs for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association.  Another veteran Avery law enforcement officer, Danny Phillips, is currently serving as Interim Sheriff.  The winner of the 2022 election will technically replace both Frye and Phillips.

The interview with Buchanan follows:

2022 Avery County Sheriff Candidate Lee Buchanan. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Buchanan)

High Country Press: What is your personal background?

Lee Buchanan: My name is William Lee Buchanan. I was born and raised in Avery County. I was fortunate to grow up, play outside, and swim in the river surrounded by the beautiful mountains in the valley known as Powdermill, in lower Avery County. I am proud to call Pat and Janet “Cookie” Burleson Buchanan my parents, and I’m blessed with four siblings: Mike Buchanan, Paul Buchanan, David Buchanan, and Liz Silvers. My wife, Becky Buchanan, and I reside in Crossnore, with our children Braxton (19), Callee Buchanan (16) and my granddaughter, Jaycee (4). I also have a step-daughter Kasadee (29) and a grandson, Eli (9). 

High Country Press: What is your professional background—particularly in law enforcement?

Lee Buchanan: My law enforcement career started as a police officer in the Town of Seven Devils in 1996.  I then began working for the Avery County Sheriff’s Office in 1996 and have done so for the past 26 years in various positions. I am currently Chief Deputy.

My law enforcement training includes: Mayland Community College and Lees McRae Criminal Justice; Advanced Law Enforcement Certificate

Certified NC General Instructor; Several specialty Instructor Level certifications; Mayland Community College Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) Director, two years; and Numerous Leadership Certificates though the North Carolina Justice Academy Level II Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) Certified.

I have commanded the Special Response Team (SRT) since 2015. The SRT has been deployed for searches, flooding, active shooter and even presidential motorcade security. 

High Country Press: Why are you a candidate for Avery County Sheriff?

Lee Buchanan: My reason for asking the good citizens of Avery County to vote for me for Sheriff is mainly because I want to affect change. I want to make Avery County a better place for my children, grandchildren and the people of Avery County. I have developed and implemented various programs and services that collaborate with the community to improve our way of life through safety in Avery County. Some of these programs include the Church Security Training, the Elderly Call Care Program, Project Life Saver, Citizens Academy, Avery County Explorers Program, and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Program. Most recently, Freedom Life has been implemented in Avery County which is an inmate re-entry program, that will start January 2023. 

I’m seeking the opportunity of Sheriff to lead Avery County, the county where I was born and raised, and raised my kids, with more programs and services that will sustain, elevate, and improve life for all people in Avery County.

High Country Press: Your fellow-candidates for Avery County Sheriff have strong qualifications for the job.  But with all due respect to them, what attributes for the position do you feel you possess that maybe they do not?

Lee Buchanan: Serving the people of the Avery County and the communities and townships that I love has been an honor and privilege for me for 26 years.  I’ve served under multiple sheriffs over this time, and have learned through experience, dedication, and lessons learned from Sheriffs Edward Gwyn and Kevin Frye. Serving Avery County in various roles has positioned me to understand the requirements of a Sheriff and the duties of a Sheriff’s Office. 

Through experience as a Detention Officer, Patrol Deputy, Investigator, Patrol Sergeant, Patrol Lieutenant, Patrol Captain and Chief Deputy, I understand what a day in the life of a Sheriff’s Office entails. While my fellow candidates are good and decent people with some law enforcement experience, none of them have the experience that I do in a Sheriff’s Office, and specifically, the Avery County Sheriff’s Office. 

There are many positions in law enforcement, including but not limited to, corrections, police departments, state highway patrol, probation, and public safety. While all of these offices are very important, individuals that work in these areas cannot walk in on day one with the knowledge required to lead the Avery County Sheriff’s Office. Simply put, I am the only candidate running for Sheriff who has this day-to-day experience. This experience, dedication, and commitment combined with the ongoing formal professional development I’ve participated in for more than 26 years, makes me the most credentialed and knowledgeable candidate running for the position of Sheriff. 

High Country Press: How would you define a good or successful law enforcement officer—particularly a County Sheriff?

Lee Buchanan: A good or successful law enforcement officer must put the needs of others before him or herself. He or she must have, and demonstrate daily, a servant’s heart! I am a Christian man, and although I fail and seek forgiveness daily, I look for direction from God, and ask Him to guide me in all that I do. Secondly, to be a Sheriff, a person must be credentialed, knowledgeable and understand how to apply the laws under the Constitution of the United States, particularly as defined by North Carolina General Statute 162. 

High Country Press: What are the most noted changes in law enforcement since you first started working in the profession?

Lee Buchanan: Technology, by far, is the most notable change in law enforcement. The widespread use of technology has played a significant role in increasing the efficiency of deputies. Deputies are surrounded by sources of critical, real-time information from in-car computers and other mobile devices. Nowadays, deputy sheriffs have been trained using technology, including computers in their patrol cars, social media, body cameras and much more. Without any doubt, the area of technology will continue to change how a deputy conducts day-to-day duties. For the most part, technology has helped the Avery Sheriff’s Office and provides actual evidence in many situations. However, technology on the part of the offender can be taken out of context or modified and has sometimes hurt an officer. 

Simply put, technology and policing go together. And that’s good, especially when this technology makes things safer for both officers and those whom they serve. As further technology inevitably develops, sheriff’s offices have the opportunity to leverage it for the greater good in their counties and communities. GPS technology, drones and evidence collection are just a few innovative ways technology has made a Sheriff’s Office operate more efficiently. However, technology is expensive and it is hard for laws to keep up new policies and policy changes.

High Country Press: What changes to the Avery County Sheriff’s Department do you plan to make if you’re elected as Sheriff?

Lee Buchanan: First, I want to ensure the citizen of Avery County that if I am elected, there will be a very smooth transition. Serving in the role of Chief Deputy for three years and leadership roles for 13 years has given me the skills and knowledge to move into Sheriff’s position. Secondly, as I have served in the Sheriff’s Office for 26 years, I have great ideas and projects that will improve efficiencies, improve response time and improve our community. I have a plan of action ready that will reveal a much more competent, professional and effective office. There will be positive changes in every division building upon the foundations that have been created.

High Country Press: What will be your most immediate challenges and top priorities if you’re elected?

Lee Buchanan: My top priority, if elected, is to demonstrate trust, efficiency and accountability. The people who know me and will cast their vote for me on May 17 know this. However, I want the people who don’t know me or don’t vote for me to know that I am a servant to Avery County and will make every effort to make changes in the Sheriff’s Office that will improve our service and reliability to the communities we serve. I will also deploy my plan of action to make the county better. I’ve had many years to take the best of the best ideas and mold them into a plan that will help every aspect of the county.

High Country Press: If elected, what can Avery County residents, others who have business with the Sheriff’s Office and criminals expect from you?

Lee Buchanan: First, I have high expectations of myself and the people who work for the Avery County Sheriff’s Office. Respect is one of my foundational beliefs. As Sheriff, I will ensure that all people receive respect, regardless of the scenario. We are all humans and deserving of respect, even if they are not having their best moment.  Second, I want to listen. I plan to conduct community meetings and learn more about what needs to be done. There is no quick fix and not every community needs the same things. 

I will focus on recruitment and retainment of excellent law enforcement officers to combat our drug problem, common in rural environments like Avery County. Improvement programs, as previously listed, will also create new opportunities within our county. Working collaboratively with police departments, parole officers and corrections offices will also combat crime in our communities. Being proactive by working with and creating programs within our schools and teaming up with guidance counselors will trigger services earlier for students before issues become problems. My primary goal for improvement is to create and implement plans of action to make Avery County a safe place to raise families, enjoy life and/ or retire and relax in our beautiful county.

Finally, I want to react to the great ideas that I gather from listening to people in the community. I want to take action and help those who may be down on their luck. Together, we are Avery County, and I see the role of Sheriff at the center of making Avery County better.

High Country Press: What other comments would you like to add?

Lee Buchanan: My promise to the citizens of Avery County is to fulfill my duties as Sheriff by being efficient, transparent and accountable.  As Avery County Sheriff, I, along with all staff, will serve with integrity while upholding the laws and Constitutions of North Carolina and the United States. Serving the people is an honor and a privilege. If elected, I will take each day that I serve as Sheriff as a blessing, and hope that something that I do or something that I say will in turn bless someone else.

Election Procedures for Avery County Sheriff’s Race

The candidate with the most votes after the Primary Election on Tuesday, May 17 (including early voting), ensuing voting canvass conducted by Avery Board of Election officials on Friday, May 27 and (if necessary) a second primary or run-off election on Tuesday, July 26 would automatically be elected unless any candidate or candidates’ files or file to run as a write-in during the General Election on Tuesday, November 8.  The date for a second primary (run-off) was moved from July 5 by the State Board of Elections. The voter registration deadline for a second primary is Friday, July 1.

Early first Primary Election voting in Avery County will be held on the following days: Thursday, April 28; Friday, April 29; Monday, May 2; Tuesday, May 3; Wednesday, May 4: Thursday, May 5; Friday, May 6; Monday, May 9; Tuesday, May 10; Wednesday, May 11; Thursday, May 12; Friday, May 13; and Saturday May 14.  

Early voting will only be held at the Avery County Senior Citizens Center, located at 165 Shultz Circle in Newland from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. each of those days, except for Saturday, May 14, when voting must be done within the hours of 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. That is the only Saturday when early voting may be conducted.

The second Primary Election or runoff date is Tuesday, July 26.

In order to run in the General Election as a write-in candidate, that person or persons must obtain a petition of a minimum of 500 signatures of Avery County’s registered voters endorsing such a candidacy. And that petition would have to be submitted to the Avery County Board of Elections officials at least 90 days (August 9 deadline) before the General Election.

There are no Democrats running for Avery County Sheriff this year. The name of the candidate who wins the Primary Election will also be listed on the General Election voter ballots even if he has no write-in opposition. In that scenario, he will already be assured to be sworn in as Sheriff regardless of how many votes he receives in the General Election.