Supervisors pick No. 2 as interim sheriff in 3-2 vote
By Billy Davis
Otis Griffin was appointed interim sheriff following a split vote by county supervisors Monday.
The then-chief deputy at the Panola County Sheriff’s Department witnessed the 3-2 vote that followed a 30-minute discussion.
The vote was also observed by a crowd that snaked out the door into the courthouse hallway.
Supervisors James Birge, Vernice Avant and Gary Thompson voted for Avant’s motion to appoint Griffin. Birge had seconded the motion.
Supervisors Kelly Morris and Bubba Waldrup voted against the motion.
Griffin said after the meeting he has selected Andy Estridge, a retired state trooper, to serve as chief deputy of the sheriff’s department.
Estridge was hired by Bright to perform drug interdiction on Interstate 55.
The board vote allows Griffin, 53, to fill the unexpired term of late sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright. Griffin has been employed at the department since 1996.
Bright’s widow, Mary Nell Bright, formally turned down the vacancy when the board meeting began after disclosing her intentions last week.
Her late husband had said in past conversations that the “widow appointment” represents an antiquated gesture that had “outlived its usefulness,” she said.
“I cannot in good conscience accept a check for something I’m not qualified for,” said Mrs. Bright, reading from a prepared statement. She did not endorse a candidate.
Sheriff Bright’s death on September 27 caused the vacancy, now filled by Griffin, and also triggered a special election now 13 months away. The regular election for a four-year term will follow in 2011.
Much of the board discussion Monday was gobbled up when Griffin and supervisors discussed possible turmoil within the department if Griffin and other sheriff’s employees qualify for the upcoming race.
The department found itself divided in 2005, when the death of David Bryan set up a similar special election to finish his term.
Bright was serving as jail administrator when he qualified to run as sheriff.
After beating a crowded field of candidates, Bright was credited for bringing together the splintered department.
Drawing from that experience, some supervisors have suggested the interim sheriff should pledge not to seek the office.
“We need a sheriff who’s going to be there,” Morris said Monday, referring to an incumbent sheriff campaigning for re-election.
“We wanted somebody at the helm with no ambition to run,” he said.
Griffin has said he is undecided about seeking the sheriff’s office and was uncommitted Monday, too.
When pressed by Morris to describe his political plans, Griffin pointedly suggested that asking him to divulge his plans could damage his status at the sheriff’s department, which would then hurt his career.
“I’ve got a family I’ve got to support,” Griffin said, likening his situation to Thompson’s concern that his son’s job would be safe if Griffin was appointed interim sheriff.
Thompson had sought that assurance last week in a meeting with Griffin, the chief deputy went on to explain.
Thompson’s son, Barry Thompson, is employed as a sheriff’s investigator at the department.
Griffin also wondered aloud if a no-run pledge would be required of someone else seeking the appointment.
“If anybody else was in this position… Think about it… it wouldn’t be an issue,” he said.
“Every potential appointee has been asked that question,” Thompson replied. “You’re not the only one we asked.”
At least one potential appointment has signed such a pledge, Morris also said.
The sheriff’s department has learned from the divisive sheriff’s race in 2005 and will not repeat it, Griffin assured the board.
“Nobody out there understood what God was about,” he said. “They didn’t understand that the family that prays together stays together.”
After the meeting, Griffin acknowledged that sheriff’s employees had circulated a petition within the department to support his bid as interim sheriff.
“I heard talk about it but it’s been kept out of my sight,” he said. “I’d love to see it.”
Thompson recognized others Monday who sought to speak, including sheriff’s investigator Mark Whitten and political activist Bob Bryant.
Whitten assured supervisors that Griffin had formed leadership skills as chief deputy and is capable of leading the department. He also assured the board that Griffin is undecided about running for sheriff.
Bryant reminded supervisors that he had voiced concern to the board in August, after the death of Justice Court Judge James Appleton, about appointing someone with political ambitions.
“You’re not making an appointment,” he said. “The five of y’all are electing the next person to office, which is not the democratic process.”
Batesville pastor Marlon Coleman opened the Monday meeting with prayer and read from a statement that supported Griffin’s appointment.
“The common concern is the future of Panola County,” he said in part.
After Monday’s meeting, Supervisor Waldrup, who did not speak during the matter, told a reporter he voted against the motion because Griffin had failed to communicate his plans to the board.
“There was no communication about it. I couldn’t get him to talk to me,” Waldrup said.
The Monday vote included one point of order after Avant, during her board motion, suggested that Robbie Haley be appointed “under sheriff” of the department.
Haley is employed as administrative assistant.
Board attorney Bill McKenzie explained that the Board of Supervisors appoints only the sheriff.
Griffin told The Panolian Haley will continue to work as administrative assistant.