By Daniel Silliman
The most simple political question, for the five men challenging the sheriff in the upcoming election, was the question of consolidation.
Did they support the idea of consolidating the Clayton County Police Department into the Clayton County Sheriff's Office?
Asked by a citizen at a candidate forum last month, all of them answered the same way. One after another, Garland Watkins, Sherman Lemon, Jack Rainwater, Kem Kimbrough and Ernest Strozier said, "No."
The two law enforcement agencies, according to the candidates, have different functions and require different training. For some though, the question persists.
The Clayton County Democratic Party has placed the question on the ballot for those casting votes in the Democratic primary on July 15. The question reads: "Shall the Charter of Clayton County be amended so to authorize, upon the approval of a local referendum, the consolidation of the law enforcement powers and duties of the Clayton County Police into the Clayton County Sheriff's Office?"
The non-binding ballot question amounts to basically a "straw poll," according to Kevin Thomas, chairman of the Clayton County Democratic Party. Thomas said the question was added to the ballot at the request of the party, after the executive board voted to ask about consolidation.
"We need to get in the habit of asking the public how they feel," Thomas said. "We can't be afraid to hear from the citizens. Let the people decide."
So far as Thomas knows, the Democrats haven't asked any other questions on a primary ballot. There was some talk about including a question about qualifications, and school board members, but the executive committee "didn't know enough about it," Thomas said.
Besides being non-binding, the ballot question is legally inaccurate.
Counties in Georgia do not have charters. Counties have "enabling legislation." The county police department was created by the county commission and, legally, the only body that could eliminate the department and cede it's power and budget to the Sheriff's Office would be the county commission, according to James F. Grubiak, general council for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
"It's improperly written," said Eldrin Bell, Chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners. "It's invalid and misleading and raises concerns."
Bell sent a letter to the chair of the state Democratic Party Thursday morning, raising his concerns and asking the state party to look into the ballot question.
Thomas said he didn't know if the county had a charter or not, but he thought the main point of the question was clear. "It's just a straw poll," he said.
The idea of consolidating the police department with the sheriff's office has been promoted and pushed by Sheriff Victor Hill. He talked about consolidation during his first campaign in the 2004 election, and has made it a plank of his platform again, as he seeks re-election. The sixth initiatives listed on his campaign web site is "Consolidation: Let the People Decide."
Hill writes on his web site: "Unfortunately, law enforcement in Clayton County faces unnecessary challenges due to the current dual structure. With a merger of the county police into the sheriff's office, we will be able to change the way law enforcement conducts its daily operations, and ultimately decrease the response time to 911 emergency calls, facilitate more thorough investigations, and increase efficiency in our reporting methods."
According to Hill, the "next step" toward consolidation is a voter referendum. Hill is the only elected official in Clayton County who has publicly promoted or supported the idea of giving the sheriff's office more power through the elimination of the police department.
Thomas said he didn't get the question put on the ballot on Hill's behalf. He admitted his daughter works for Hill, and some have said she was given a job in exchange for the promotion of Hill's agenda, but Thomas denied the allegation.
"That has nothing to do with it," he said. "It's kind of a big question, whether or not it should happen. We've been hearing about consolidation, amongst the elected officials."
Jeff Turner, chief of the Clayton County Police Department, said Hill is the only elected official he's ever heard talk about consolidation.
"It's something that Sheriff Hill is consistently pushing," Turner said. "It's a ploy, by him ... He wants to present the image that there's a duplication of services, but the duplication is because of the initiatives brought by the sheriff. The sheriff, if he wants to end the duplication of services, should send his Field Operations Division over to the police department."
According to Turner, consolidation is a bad idea, because everyone would have to be retrained and cross-trained, which would require a massive amount of money. There's a difference, he said, between those who are trained to be "first responders" and those who are trained to guard the courthouse; those trained to investigate homicides and those trained to guard prison inmates.
"The two agencies don't have to be different," he said, "but you'd be spending additional monies to go back and try and cross-train. You can't take a bunch of deputies out of the jail and put them on the street. They have to be trained."
Turner said he wasn't surprised to see the question persist, because he knows Hill is insistent. The sheriff has written about it repeatedly in his newsletters and has made it a campaign issue. The police chief said the non-binding ballot question could answer the question for everyone, though.
"Maybe the people will speak out and let them know this isn't an issue," Turner said. "If they vote, 'No,' maybe this will go away."