Commissioners step up control in courthouse

By Justin Boron

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved a measure that could allow it in the future to reduce and regulate the sheriff's control over courthouse security.

The move didn't have any immediate impact on whether Sheriff Victor Hill - who oversees much of the security at the courthouse - will continue to do so. And the intentions behind the 4-1 vote are still unclear as county officials have given no official indication that the embattled sheriff would be relieved of any security duties.

But with one commissioner calling it “antagonistic,” the ordinance change at least opened the door to possibly reducing Hill's involvement in courthouse security, adding another security provider, and according to an attorney for 34 sheriff employees, settling a federal discrimination suit his clients have against the sheriff.

Negotiations for a settlement of the suit have centered around money and the ability of the county to move the 34 sheriff employees to other jobs within the county. The county police department had been one possibility for the employees, most of whom are sworn peace officers. The commission considered the settlement proposal twice behind closed doors, emerging both times with no progress to announce.

But a separate security agency could conceivably provide other jobs for some plaintiffs.

Harlan Miller, the plaintiffs' attorney in the case, declined to say whether the topic specifically came up during mediation talks. But he said that alternative security options for the courthouse have been discussed throughout the duration of the litigation. He also said the creation of one could help his clients and “hopefully would be something that will work toward making it easier to resolve this case.”

Independent of its implications, the ordinance change allows the commission to create new rules governing the sheriff and any other board-authorized security providers for county property.

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said to expect those changes, but not before a board-appointed committee makes recommendations on them.

Currently, Hill provides security at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center, a county-owned building outside of Jonesboro. The sheriff also is assisted in security by court administration services.

Bell said the change in the ordinance was not intended to eliminate or limit Hill's contribution to security.

But Commissioner Wolé Ralph, who voted against the measure, said he worried the move would be perceived as “antagonistic” and “provocative.” He also said it does little to mend the rift between Hill and the commissioners.

“Everywhere I go in the county or outside the county, the overwhelming urge is for the county commission to stop fighting with the sheriff,” Ralph said.

Hill didn't return phone calls for his reaction to the commission action.

But he has maintained even before he was elected sheriff that the county commission cannot strip his office of responsibilities designated by the Georgia Constitution. He has said those are running the county jail, providing court security, and being the chief law enforcer in the county.

Without saying that the commission was moving in any particular direction, the county's chief staff attorney, Michael Smith, said the state's statutes and constitution clearly confine the sheriff's security detail to the courtrooms. Even then, he said those courtroom duties are assigned at the behest of the judges.