Cleveland County is down a sheriff and county officials are on a tight deadline to find an interim sheriff.
Sheriff Joe Lester announced his immediate retirement late Monday evening and dropped a lawsuit against county commissioners.
District 3 County Commissioner Harold Haralson knew retirement was a possibility and is now relieved the lawsuit is no longer on the table.
“There were a lot of rumors circulating yesterday,” said Commissioner Harold Haralson, Cleveland Co. District 3. “We weren’t really clear on what was going to happen.”
After nine years of service, Lester announced his immediate retirement through a letter. County commissioners saw it coming months ago.
“It has been a very challenging period of time since last March when this all started,” said Commissioner Haralson. “It has consumed a large amount of time.”
That's when Lester filed a lawsuit against Cleveland County commissioners. He alleged they were not properly funding the jail. This prompted commissioners to request a state audit of the sheriff's office.
The auditor discovered the sheriff's office mismanaged hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Commissioner Haralson believes the audit results pushed Lester to retire. His sudden retirement also meant the lawsuit had to be dropped.
“It’s a relief personally,” said Commissioner Haralson. “I suspect a relief for others and we can get back to taking care of the citizens.”
Commissioners now have two weeks to find an interim sheriff. Undersheriff Rhett Burnett is filling the role as head administrator until an interim is in place.
“We have started a process of taking applications through our HR department for an interim head of the sheriff’s department until next election,” said Commissioner Haralson.
Qualified applicants have until 5 p.m. Oct. 6 to submit an application. The next sheriff election will be held in Nov. 2018.
When asked about the open position, Undersheriff Burnett said he is well qualified to fill as interim sheriff and is considering that an option. He also said his immediate focus is the office and obligations to the public.