Hill suit would rehash past sheriff debates

By Justin Boron

If the sheriff sues the Clayton County Board of Commissioners over his budget, at the heart of the conflict will be several long-debated questions surrounding the state constitutional office's relationship with the local governing body that funds it.

How much power does a board of commissioners have over the Sheriff's Office? To what extent can a county commission limit the sheriff's role and duties through the budget? Is the Sheriff's Office a department of the county government or an office unto itself? Do sheriffs control and manage their own budget once a county commission provides funds ?

These questions and more, advocacy groups say, are what have arisen from an awkward interdependence through which the Sheriff's Office receives its budget from the local county commission, but is conveyed its authority by the Georgia Constitution.

The sometimes conflicted relationship has put Georgia sheriffs at odds with their respective Boards of Commissioners numerous times.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill said it has happened so many times that judges have already ruled on most of the questions that are currently pushing the disagreements between him and the commissioners.

"Why are we going to court on questions that have already been answered?" he asked.

Nevertheless, at stake, Hill says, is his ability to carry out his duties with the budget recently adopted by the county commission. He also said in a lawsuit, he would fight for more control over his own budget.

"The upcoming court battles are about the autonomy of elected officials from the county commission," he said.

During budget proceedings in June, Hill, along with other court officials, argued he needed more resources to keep up with a recent spike in crime in the county.

The board provided none of Hill's requests, prompting him to say he would file for a writ of mandamus to force the commissioners to fund his office adequately.

District Attorney Jewel Scott, who also received none of her requests in the budget, said she may sue but would do it independent of the sheriff.

Defending the budget decision after its adoption, County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell called on elected officials and department heads to manage better what they already had. The commission also agreed to reassess what it can provide mid-way through the year.

Although Hill has promised a suit, a protracted legal battle still isn't certain.

Oliver Hunter, the deputy general counsel for the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, Inc., said most cases don't actually go to court because judges attempt to allay the political tension through an out-of-court settlement instead of through a judicial order.

"Most cases that go to court are the most egregious ones," he said.

Hill wouldn't be first to sue

Across Georgia, elected officials have battled with county commissions on issues from bottled water to arbitrary budget cuts. Some of them went as high as the Georgia Supreme Court.

The most recent case arose in 2003 when the Dougherty County commission attempted to cut $300,000 from Sheriff Jamil Saba's budget, according to the Albany Herald. Saba took the case to the Georgia Supreme Court and won.

Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence also prevailed after the county commission there in 2001 mandated budget cuts to all departments to handle financial constraints.

Hunter said the courts ruled the commission did not take into consideration the needs of each office or department in requiring the across the board cuts.

Sheriffs have not always been the victors though.

In 2002, Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway sued to force the county commission there to add money to cover a staffing shortage, the Gwinnett Citizen reported at the time.

At Issue in Clayton County

Just because a sheriff claims to need a bigger budget doesn't mean he can force the county commission's hand through a lawsuit, according to Jim Grubiak, the general counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

There is no specific amount of money to which a sheriff is entitled, Hunter said.

Instead, a sheriff has to establish through specific evidence that his budget is so constrictive that he cannot do his job.

"What the court wants to know is what you are unable to do that you have to do that this budget precludes you from doing," Hunter said.

Hill said his budget prevents him from sufficiently staffing the county jail and providing adequate security for the county courthouse. He claims his warrants division, which he said often must transport inmates for medical attention, also is understaffed.

The time spent guarding the inmate at the hospital, Hill said, takes away from the division's ability to keep up with warrants.

Problems with staffing in the county jail reach back to former Sheriff Stanley Tuggle. He also had asked for more staff and exceeded his overtime budget to cover the personnel shortage.

But Hill's case may be tougher than proving just that he is understaffed.

Grubiak said the Georgia Supreme Court has given county commissions broad discretion on budgeting so long as they don't arbitrarily or maliciously deny requests or make cuts.

In terms of how much control the sheriff has over his own budget, Hunter said sheriffs have almost free reign but they can't exceed the amount provided to them.

"That's his call to make, and most commissions don't seem to get that," he said.

Recently, Hill told the county commission he didn't need their permission to move money from one part of his budget to another part for uniforms.

He later told a reporter, he didn't "have to go before the Board of Commissioners and say 'mother may I.'"

"The only thing that the commission does for the sheriff is fund us," he added.

But Hill's power over his budget may depend on a Georgia Code that allows county commissions to detail at what level department and office budgets are controlled, Grubiak said.

Sabrina Cape, a local government finance expert for the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, said the minimum level of control set by the law is at the department level.

She said that means department budgets wouldn't necessarily need commission approval to be amended.

However, Cape said county commissions can be more restrictive in outlining budget controls.

Michael Smith, the Clayton County's chief staff attorney, said the county commission here has a specified policy on purchasing and expenditures.

Hill said he also plans to contest the county commission's transfer of the crime scene investigation unit and several narcotics agents to the county police control.