AIKEN - It bodes well for homeland security that Aiken County Sheriff Howard Sellers can keep a secret. In fact, his decision to retire to take a new role in the national security effort might have been the best-kept secret in town - until Friday morning.
To the surprise of his peers in the community, the sheriff announced his intention to retire from the office at the end of the month.
He was intentionally vague about the responsibilities of his new job, but he said law enforcement and emergency response will be among his duties.
"While this will involve some extensive travel for me, Aiken County is my home, and many people here are my friends," he said, his wife standing behind him. "Marilyn and I will retain our property here, stay involved with this community and retire here after this challenge is met."
With the sheriff's earlier statements on his intention to seek re-election in 2004, many were shocked by the news. "He kind of floored us all," said Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian, who received a call from the sheriff a few minutes before his announcement. "I don't know everything that's going on in Sheriff Sellers' situation, but I think we've developed a very good professional relationship, and I'm going to miss that."
Chief Deputy Jody Rowland will take over the responsibilities of sheriff until a special election in June. After the sheriff's 9 a.m. announcement, the chief deputy made his own statement confirming his candidacy for the June election.
According to state law, the governor is empowered to appoint a "suitable" replacement in the interim if a sheriff's vacancy occurs more than a year in advance of the normal election cycle.
South Carolina's new governor said he will defer to the sheriff. "I have the utmost respect for Howard. I will rely on him for what's best," Gov.-elect Mark Sanford said in phone comments to The Augusta Chronicle.
Surrounded by family, friends and sheriff's office employees, the sheriff thanked his personnel Friday for their efforts in developing a modern, professional department during his decade in office.
"No one in my 32 years' experience in law enforcement has done more than these men and women, with only minimal resources and a tremendous desire to serve," he said.
The sheriff gave specific praise to Chief Deputy Rowland for his day-to-day operations of the department.
Both Sheriff Sellers and his chief deputy are Republicans.
The sheriff had been a candidate for U.S. marshal of South Carolina, a position appointed by the president.
Johnny Mack Brown, the sheriff of Greenville County, was named to that post in July. Sheriff Sellers said his new position is not a presidential appointment.
ALTHOUGH HE WAS MUM on his upcoming duties and how he was chosen, the sheriff's name recognition and government security clearance probably helped in his selection.
Before his first term of office in 1993, he was special operations director for Wackenhut Security at Savannah River Site, overseeing enforcement officers, helicopter pilots and special teams.
He also has been an FBI agent and a police chief in Whitefish, Mont.
Although popular with the electorate, the sheriff has had run-ins with Aiken County Council over funding for his department and his belief that the sheriff's office should run the jail.
But rather than rehash old conflicts or express regrets, the sheriff chose Friday to emphasize his accomplishments in general terms, touting "performance far better than that which Aiken County citizens have experienced in the past."
Chief Pete Frommer of the Aiken Department of Public Safety was among those who passed along congratulations after hearing the news.
"Howard is a good man, well-educated," the chief said. "He has a lot of life experiences with many agencies. He always puts his best foot forward, and I'm sure he'll do a good job in his new endeavors."
In his own news conference outside of the sheriff's office - politicking is prohibited in government buildings - Chief Deputy Rowland said he had about a week to make his decision about the interim position and his candidacy.
The sheriff was asked to take the homeland security job two weeks ago, but he mulled it over for a week.
"I felt like I've been in a hurricane for the past few days," Chief Deputy Rowland said. But he acknowledged that he had been considering running once Sheriff Sellers retired.
Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.