By Billy Corriher
With qualifying for this year's elections less than two weeks away, Clayton County's policy on county employees running for office is still up in the air.
The county Board of Commissioners decided Tuesday to ask the Justice Department to preclear the policy under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The policy would force employees to ask the commissioners for a leave of absence to run for elected office. Even though the county hopes to have an answer from the department by next week, department representatives said the process can take 120 days.
State Rep. Victor Hill, a candidate for Clayton County sheriff and a detective in the county police force, threatened a lawsuit against the county last week because the policy was not pre-cleared by the Justice Department.
Crandle Bray, chairman of the board of commissioners, said Hill was seeking to get publicity by challenging the county, and he hopes the county reelects Sheriff Stanley Tuggle.
But Hill said he is only seeking to have the county follow federal law.
"They were supposed to clear it before it was enacted," Hill said.
Hill said he sent a complaint to the Justice Department asking them not to approve the policy and questioning its timing. Hill said other county employees had run for county office with no problem before, and he believes the policy was enforced on him for political reasons.
If the Justice Department doesn't clear the policy, the county would fall back on a 1963 ordinance that bars county employees from running for office. But Hill said the county has already set a precedent by allowing other employees to run for county office.
"Either one they want to use? would result in their defeat in federal court," he said.
Bray said that even though municipal representatives like Lovejoy Major Joe Murphy work for the county, he's not aware of many county employees who have run for county office. Bray said he tried to get former police chief Ronnie Clackum to fire one employee that Hill mentioned, former Sheriff candidate Carlton Wood, when he declared his candidacy.
"Most counties in Georgia have a policy like this," he said.
Bray said the county didn't realize that the policy had to be cleared by the Justice Department.
"Nobody knew the Voting Rights Act covered personnel policy," he said.
Bray said the county is hoping to hear from the Justice Department before qualifying begins in two weeks, but the department can normally take up to 120 days to review a policy.
Casey Stavrotoulos, spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said the department has 60 days to review the policy and another 60 days if county employees need to be questioned further.
If the policy is cleared, it would affect all county employees seeking to run for office this year, including county detective Joe Mack Eckler, another candidate for sheriff.
Eckler said he supports the commissioners and will follow whatever policy the county adopts.
"If it's the law, it should be followed," he said.
Eckler also said the conflict between Hill and the commissioners would complicate things if Hill was elected.
"I don't see where it would be to the sheriff's advantage to fight with the commissioners," he said.
Tuggle, who is seeking to hold on to his position as sheriff in the July 20 election, said that working out the policy is up to the commissioners.
"I don't really care who runs (for sheriff)," Tuggle said. "I'm not going to change my campaign or anything else."