By Justin Boron
A packed house of Clayton County residents stood up in unison Tuesday night while the Board of Commissioners voted to approve what has become an inflammatory transfer of the crime scene investigations unit from the sheriff's control to county police supervision.
Sheriff-elect Victor Hill jumped out of his seat, along with about 75 other people, as Commissioner Charlie Griswell revealed the contents of two mysterious resolutions that were added just minutes after the meeting began.
The two resolutions that county attorney Don Comer did not read, as he usually does, delineated measures which Hill, a number of other recently elected officials, and several prominent community activists have fiercely opposed in the past five weeks.
Griswell's last-minute addition to the agenda was a surprise to some commission members and enraged much of the African-American community present at the meeting, emboldening them in a fight, which they say is against racism, vindictive politics, and the marginalization of a newly elected batch of politicians, reflective of a majority-black population in Clayton County.
Commission Chairman Crandle Bray had trouble stopping the slew of community members who rushed the podium after the crime scene investigations unit transfer carried with a vote of three affirms (Bray, Gerald Matthews, Griswell), one opposed (Carl Rhodenizer), and one abstention (Gray).
The second resolution failed in a divisive 2-2-1 vote, with Bray changing his vote to oppose, and others keeping their previous positions.
The second resolution was for the transfer of the narcotics unit to county police supervision.
Joe Wheeler, the former president of the Clayton County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was one of the first community members to criticize the commissioners who voted for the two measures.
"For me this is a moral issue," he said. "For you to make abrupt changes to the Sheriff Department is suspect. Leave it alone."
State Rep.-elect Roberta Abdul-Salaam got up to speak and demanded Griswell give up his seat, calling the commission disrespectful of the voters' wishes.
"The mess has been like it is for 20 or 30 years," she said. "The word I hear from the people I represent is 'boycott.'"
Facing the uproar, Griswell smirked and then provided his motives for the two resolutions.
The threats of lawsuits and repeated letters pushed him to put the items up for approval, he said.
"We received a letter from the current sheriff, Stanley Tuggle, requesting this," Griswell said. "I am tired of being intimidated by Mr. Hill and Mr. (Lee) Scott ... being threatened in meetings that we had. I am not going to be subject to this abuse.
"I was going to leave it until next year until I read that letter," he said.
Griswell was referring to an editorial written by Hill and provided to the News Daily.
The editorial had not appeared in the paper and was not provided to Griswell by the News Daily.
Rhodenizer, unprepared for the two resolutions, expressed his disinterest in proceeding with them.
Burying his face in his hands in a visual display of his irritation, he said he wanted to wait.
"My wishes have been that we wait until the change in the administration, well into the next year," he said.
Dexter Matthews, the president of the Clayton County branch of the NAACP, shook hands with Rhodenizer after the meeting, but did not have kind words for other commissioners who voted for the measure.
"I didn't think I would have to come here tonight," he said. "It's embarrassing, it's not on the agenda, it's racist-related and vindictive because you guys have a beef with Mr. Hill.
"At least two of you know you're wrong," he said.
Bray, who looked equally as surprised, said he changed his vote on the second measure to study its legality. But he stood his ground on the motivation behind both proposed transfers.
Driven by the mood of the crowd of supporters behind him, Hill emphatically stated his basis for a lawsuit, which he planned on doing even before the resolutions were added.
Citing a Superior Court judgment in Dougherty County, he said the county has no authority to interfere with the sheriff's law enforcement capacity.
"In contrast to the power that the Legislature has over a sheriff, the Georgia Constitution provides no grant of authority to the counties and prohibits them from interfering in or affecting the operation of the sheriff's office," a copy of the ruling said.
Hill said Griswell's actions confirm the vindictive approach to the transfers that he has suggested since they came up on his official election day Nov. 2.
"Everyone was given a copy of the court rulings that show these issues have already been tried," he said.
Hill, along with Dexter Matthews, also expressed worries that the last-minute additions may have violated Georgia code regarding what circumstances items can be added to the agenda.
Both District Attorney-elect Jewell Scott and Hill said they will file suits as soon as they officially take office.
Scott's dispute with the commission stems from a personnel transfer that sent two staff positions in the district attorney's office to calendar clerk positions.
The melee that pervaded the final minutes of the commission meeting followed the approval of $29,812 for a narcotics unit audit, which occurred in October and November and led to the resignation of the unit's supervising officer.
The audit, which initially found evidence of "misdirected funds," was used as justification for the transfer of the narcotics unit to total county police control.
Currently, responsibility for the unit is shared between the Sheriff's Department, the District Attorney's Office, and the county Police Department.
Chief Darrell Partain has said the transfer of the unit to one department would streamline oversight.
The complete findings of the audit are still unclear. But when evidence of "misdirected funds" was discovered, Clarence Cox quit his position as special agent in charge soon thereafter.
The item approved was for a total of $58,542 but included additional services provided by the national CPA firm KPMG that were not specified on the agenda, Bray said.
Finance Director Dan Martin said the firm did extensive work, checking several bank accounts and tracing fund dispersal from the federal level.