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Clayton sheriff threatens to throw chairman in jail

By Justin Boron

Alleging a recent breach in courthouse security, Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill has threatened to arrest his political adversary County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell. The chairman said he had a right to be at the courthouse.

The accusation, which Hill delivered as a warning, came in a letter dated a day after the commission passed an ordinance that affirmed its authority over how courthouse security is imposed. The move also raised the possibility of limiting Hill's authority over it.

In the letter addressed to Bell in which Hill calls the ordinance “illegal,” he also says, “You are hereby being forewarned that if you engage in any further unbecoming conduct that breaches the security at the courthouse, we will not stop at go, or collect $200 but will make sure that you go straight to the Clayton County Jail.”

Earlier in the letter, Hill alleges that Bell set off alarms unnecessarily and had to be escorted off property.

He also describes the alleged behavior as “unacceptable and inconsistent with what is expected of a man that holds your position and seniority in years.”

Bell shrugged off the letter.

“I don't respond to Victor Hill any more because of the personal nature which he sends his stuff,” he said. “I refuse to dignify that kind of letter with a response. So I passed it to my attorney to respond to the legal issues. The rest of that stuff I ignore.”

Michael Smith, the county's chief staff attorney, said Bell was on a routine visit to the courthouse to survey maintenance procedures, which was within his rights and responsibility as the chairman.

“Since (a breach) did not happen when the chairman was visiting the facility, we don't take (the threat) as being applicable to anybody,” he said.

Clayton County District Attorney Jewel Scott said if Hill did arrest Bell, it would probably be for a misdemeanor like trespassing. Since her office prosecutes only felonies, she wouldn't have jurisdiction.

“I would hope that it never comes to that,” Scott said.

If it does come to that, Solicitor General Leslie Miller-Terry, the prosecutor for misdemeanor cases in the county, said she also wouldn't try the case. Since she has to go before the commission for budget approval, she said there might be a conflict of interest.

“Most likely, I would step out of the way and have the attorney general appoint a special prosecutor,” Miller-Terry said. “You want somebody who's completely neutral.”

Hill's threat is the most recent blow in what has been widely perceived as an ongoing feud between Hill and the commissioners. Since before Hill took office, he and the county commission have exchanged lawsuits, squabbled over the budget of the Sheriff's Office, and tangled frequently in the media.

Much of the public has advocated allaying the tension between the two offices. In May, the Clayton County Grand Jury members, whose role mostly centers around criminal investigation, also recommended that the officials lay off the back-and-forth antics.

Clearly drawing from the tension it had witnessed in the county courthouse and in the media, the jury says in its public service pronouncements, “Our elected public officials should discontinue their negative dialogue, and instead, concentrate on improving the quality of life of the county and its citizens.”

If Hill holds to his comments in the letter, the ordinance amended by the commission will likely set up another conflict in the county.

Although the commission's move didn't immediately impact Hill's role on security at the courthouse, it did open the door to the possibility of reducing his authority.

In the letter, Hill says the ordinance violates the Georgia Constitution, claiming the county commission has no legislative authority over his office.

“It has been the policy of my administration to ignore you, and it will be our policy to ignore this illegal ordinance. We will continue to secure the courthouse as we see fit, and anyone interfering with this constitutional responsibility will be charged with obstruction.”

Hill also has challenged the commission's right to transfer his crime scene investigation unit and the formerly sheriff-supervised part of the narcotics unit to county police control.

Staff Writer Ed Brock contributed to this article.