Showdown seizes county government

By Justin Boron

Nearly 500 people gathered in and around the Clayton County Administration building in Jonesboro Tuesday night for the pinnacle of two calamitous days of transition from the previous government to the new one.

A riveting two days of several Sheriff's Office firings, a court action, and bitter exchanges resulting in the arrest of the former sheriff's brother have subverted any glimpse of fluidity in the tenuous political shift.

The fallout from the sudden dismissal of 27 Sheriff's Office employees Monday carried over into Tuesday when Sheriff Victor Hill said former Sheriff Stanley Tuggle's brother, Mark Tuggle, reacted with harassing phone calls to his office.

The county Magistrate Court issued an arrest warrant for Tuggle, and an investigations team took him into custody, Hill said.

In a phone conversation, Stanley Tuggle declined to comment on his brother's arrest and hung up abruptly.

The fiery contention of the day crackled into the Clayton County Board of Commissioners' first meeting Tuesday night, transforming a relatively innocuous business agenda into a bombardment of distressed citizens.

Many were declined entrance to the 7 p.m. meeting as early as 5:30, according to some reports. County police guarded the front doors and provided security for the event.

One community leader, who did gain entrance to the building, said denying citizens entrance amounted to disenfranchisement.

"Never before have 200 people been (locked out)," said Lee Scott, a community activist and the husband of District Attorney Jewel Scott. "This has been done by County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell."

Scott also said there were non-media cameras inside the building aimed at surveillance and crowd control.

Inside the meeting, the room swelled with citizens, county employees, and print and broadcast reporters.

Department heads crammed themselves into an open corner where there were no chairs, only emerging when various commissioners asked them questions about an agenda item.

Citizens standing in the back dodged camera equipment as photographers moved through the crowd.

In the final minutes of the meeting, only one person was allowed to speak.

Former Lt. Garland Watkins of the Sheriff's Office thanked the commission for its attempt to restore the jobs of the incensed group of employees.

He elaborated on what he said was inhumane treatment, comparing the manner of Monday's dismissals to the Holocaust.

"I have been employed by the Sheriff's Office for 19 years and have never, never been so humiliated in all my days," Watkins said. "The way that we were treated yesterday was deplorable."

Once Watkins had finished, Bell asked for all the fired employees to stand, and the crowd gave them a standing ovation.

Old dispute dissolves into new one

The wave of new leaders reflective of the black majority in the county looked to hit the ground running this week after months of preparations and collaborations with the former leadership.

Instead, their focus has been turned toward Hill's broad dismissal of high- and low-ranking employees in the Sheriff's Office, which he said was part of a restructuring program.

Generally, the racial makeup of the dismissals varied. But four of the highest-ranking employees fired were white deputies, Hill said.

Hill said four black deputies replaced them.

However, Hill also said the decision was not based on race, adding he first offered his chief deputy position to a white person.

Local civil rights leaders such as the president of the Clayton County Branch of the NAACP, Dexter Matthews, and County Commissioner Wole Ralph have insisted the conflict between Hill and the county government is not racially motivated, even though the topic surfaced when the county narrowed the responsibility of the Sheriff's Office in December by transferring the crime scene investigation unit from sheriff to police control.

Ralph planned to propose the return of the crime scene investigation unit Tuesday night.

But he said he could not proceed given the unstable circumstances.

Moving the investigative unit could place its 10 staff members in an unsteady environment, he said.

"I don't think it would be fair to put potential employees in (that situation)," he said.

Ralph said he would bring it up at a later time.

Out of the past two days of tumult, an apparent power struggle between Hill and the new commission has emerged, replacing the bitter dispute Hill has had with the former administration.

At Tuesday's meeting, all commissioners expressed their dismay at Hill's recent actions.

On behalf of the commissioners, Chairman Eldrin Bell renewed the struggle with Hill through legal action late Monday, which the commission ratified at Tuesday night's meeting.

Early Tuesday morning, Stephen E. Boswell, the chief judge of Clayton County Superior Court, ordered that the fired employees be reinstated and restricted Hill from discarding any other Sheriff's Office staff members.

Both the county and Hill await the final resolution after a court hearing coming in the next week.

But that will not likely end the battle.

Hill said he still plans to sue the commission if it does not return the crime scene investigation unit to sheriff control.

Fortified Sheriff's Office

Access to the county's top law enforcer has been heavily restricted the past two days.

Hill said he fortified the door to his office with several armed guards, not because he felt threatened, but to ensure that no violence occurred.

"One thing I didn't want yesterday was a tragedy," he said.

Monday, he placed snipers on the roof as dismissed employees were escorted off the property.

Hill and others in the government have drawn attention to the similarity of this county's transition to the one in DeKalb County four years ago when Derwin Brown, a sheriff-elect, was shot and killed after he notified several employees that they would not be reappointed when he took office.

Former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey was convicted of authorizing the murder and was given a life sentence in prison.

Ralph, who has supported Hill before, but has disagreed with his recent actions, said Hill was justified in anticipating potential danger.

"The similarity of the situations is stark," he said. "I would hope and pray that we never resort to violence ... (but) it's not something that I completely rule out."

Moving on

Both Ralph and Hill have supported each other in the past.

And both say the recent developments would not scar one of the few solid relationships that remain between Hill and the commission.

What will result when the disputes come to an end will likely depend greatly on that tie, both said.

Ralph said his concern is to ascertain whether Hill has a right to dismiss employees in the way he has.

Hill was resolved to "agree to disagree."