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County commission stalls sheriff units' transfer

By Justin Boron

The Board of Commissioners' winding three-week debacle with Sheriff-elect Victor Hill gained an extra layer of complexity Tuesday, just as the county commission was prepared to untangle the conflict by acting on the transfer of the Sheriff Department's narcotics and crime scene investigation units.

In an unexpected move, the county commission deleted two agenda items that would have transferred the two investigative units to county police supervision and put to rest questions about its right to narrow the Sheriff Department's authority before Hill takes office.

The items' removal comes as almost an exact replica of the commission's Nov. 2 business meeting, where it also deleted the same two items in the face of last-minute legal contention.

The units' transfer has become a major source of friction following the general election, pitting an embattled group of recently elected officials against the outgoing county administration.

Preparing to make their transition into power in January, Hill, District Attorney-Elect Jewell Scott, and state Representative-elect Roberta Abdul-Salaam have demanded that the status quo be kept until they enter office.

Both Scott and Abdul-Salaam were present at Tuesday's meeting.

The decision to pull the items off the agenda came after Hill had a sharply worded statement read to the commissioners that threatened collective and individual discrimination lawsuits.

Reading from the prepared statement written by an absent Hill, who was at sheriff's school, his political adviser David Reed said, "If the Clayton County Board of Commissioners carries out its intention to move (the two Sheriff-department units), you can expect to be sued collectively and individually for carrying out an act of blatant discrimination and for attempting to thwart the expressed will of the voters."

Hill's threat to sue individual commissioners broadens the scope of who he has defined as his adversary in the conflict, previously only targeting Commission Chairman Crandle Bray.

While the agenda change came directly after Hill's terse statement, Bray did not connect them, saying instead that dissension among the commissioners caused the items' removal.

Bray also stepped back from his insistence that the transfer of the two units occur before the new administration takes power, saying for the first time he is willing to leave the item for the incoming commission chairman Eldrin Bell.

"It needs to be done, but I don't have a problem with the next watch (considering it)," Bray said.

Bell would not give his opinion on the matter and said he would not take sides until he enters office.

"It is the business of the current commission," he said. "I have no official statement until it comes before me, after I have taken office."

Also looming in the background is the operational impact of the transfer of the two units.

Hill has said county police officers, working as crime scene investigators, would not have jurisdiction in the county's incorporated cities, unless they have been deputized by the sheriff.

But County Attorney Don Comer said in lieu of deputization, the county could enter into an intergovernmental agreement with the municipalities, which would remove the jurisdictional hurdle.

More questions are raised by a federal court ruling in 2003 from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which gave the Sheriff's Department immunity from civil rights law suits in some circumstances. It left unclear whether other law enforcement bodies, like a county police department, were offered similar immunities.

A civil rights suit stemming from crime scene investigations could leave the county police exposed.

But counsel for the commissioners, Jack Hancock, said the likelihood of this type of scenario was slim.

"I don't see that ruling having any impact on this particular situation," he said.