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Sheriff accused of stealing signs

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A candidate for sheriff has filed a police report accusing the sheriff's office of theft.

Ernest Strozier, who is one of five men challenging Sheriff Victor Hill in the upcoming election, contacted the Jonesboro Police department on Tuesday, reporting that a deputy and several work-release inmates stole a $250 sign.

"The sheriff is crazy," Strozier said. "He thinks he's above the law. He makes up the law as he goes. Hopefully, charges will be brought."

Strozier said he had a four-foot by eight-foot sign at the BP gas station on the corner of Tara Boulevard and North Street, with the permission of the gas station owner. Strozier drove by on Tuesday, a week before the primary election, and saw the sign was gone. He stopped to ask the owner why, and was told a dark-colored pickup, with a deputy and a couple of inmates, removed the sign.

"A guy who was sitting there said, 'The sheriff just took it away,'" Strozier said. "He asked the deputy why, and the deputy said, 'Sheriff told us to take them.'"

Hill could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Strozier campaign, which has spent an estimated $4,000 on political signs, was told the sign was at the sheriff's impound lot, and was removed because it was too close to the road.

According to the police report, the BP owner was told the signs had to be more than 10 feet away from the road and the deputy said he was enforcing the county code.

The sheriff's office does not have a code enforcement unit.

The county police department, which has a code enforcement unit, does a "sign sweep" every day, according to spokesman Tim Owens, removing signs which are too close to the right-of-way.

Witnesses, however, said the only signs being taken by the sheriff's "code enforcement" detail were the ones promoting Hill's challengers.

James Morgan, who works at the W.B. Casey Plant in Jonesboro, said he saw a deputy and two inmates removing campaign signs on Flint River Road.

Morgan said they took a number of signs promoting Kem Kimbrough, who's on the July 15 ballot for sheriff.

"The inmate picked it up and he threw it in the pickup," Morgan said. "He had big, tall signs and he a lot of little signs in there."

Morgan said he's met Hill, and supports a lot of what he's done in the county, and he is considering voting to re-elect him, but he still thought taking signs was wrong.

"I just don't think it's fair," he said. "Those people are paying for the signs. They have the right to put them out there just like everyone else."

The Kimbrough campaign and the Garland Watkins campaign both reportedly have pictures of a sheriff's vehicle loaded down with challengers' seized signs.

Strozier said he's heard from supporters that whole stretches of his signs were disappearing and being replaced by red-and-white, pro-consolidation signs.

The signs, saying "VOTE YES TO CONSOLIDATION," cropped up this week. The signs urge support for the non-binding ballot measure proposing the abolishment of the Clayton County Police Department. The idea of consolidation, which would shift all county-wide-law enforcement to the sheriff's office, has long been supported by Hill, and was put on the ballot by Kevin Thomas, head of the county Democratic party.

The question is incorrectly written, asking "should the county's charter be amended," even though county's don't have charters, and it's non-binding, so it will have no actual effect.

Thomas said the question is a way for elected officials to hear from the public on an important and much-discussed question, though the only official who's ever publicly talked about consolidation is Hill, who stands to benefit from the proposed move.

Some say the consolidation question is really a referendum, and a vote "yes" is a vote for giving Hill more power.

The five men challenging the sheriff -- all opposed to consolidation -- say the sheriff already has too much power.

For Strozier, having subordinates take signs is just another example of Hill's alleged reckless disregard for everything except his own authority.

Strozier spent the afternoon building new signs and attempting to get the one sign returned.

"It's tempting to just steal his signs," Strozier said, "but I got too much integrity to resort to that sort of thing."

The primary election will be held on July 15.