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Our Voice: 'Burning Jeff Turner at the stake'

What the Clayton County Commission did on Tuesday night smells to high heaven.

Under the guise of spending cuts needed to close a $9 million gap in the fiscal 2011 budget, it eliminated the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy, which means that the head of the training academy and the former Clayton County police chief, Jeff Turner, will likely not have a job after Aug. 1.

What is going on here? Turner, as you probably remember, was removed from his position as police chief late last year for reasons that never quite added up. There was a list of supposed shortcomings that were said to show mismanagement on his part, but these stated deficiencies never seemed to back up what was being alleged. Still, he was removed from leading the police department, and the county launched an internal investigation of him, suggesting that the probe would bolster the allegations against him. Shortly thereafter, the county also sought a possible criminal investigation of Turner, based on allegations that he had improperly used police surveillance equipment.

Turner was then suspended for four weeks –– without pay –– while the internal investigation continued and an outside prosecutor was assigned to look into any possible criminal charges. When the four-week period expired, the county sought to extend it, but was rebuffed by the Civil Service Board. Turner was allowed to assume his new duties as head of the police training academy.

Meanwhile, the special prosecutor concluded that there was no basis for criminal charges in the matter. However, the county's internal investigation was said to be continuing. Now, months later, that investigation seems to be all but forgotten. There hasn't been a word about it from the county. All the while, however, Jeff Turner's reputation and standing in the community have been tarnished, and he has been given no adequate opportunity to publicly defend himself, so the citizens of this county can judge for themselves where the truth lies.

Then, on Tuesday night, in a surprising move, the commission voted to eliminate the police academy, essentially kicking Turner to the curb. The stated reason for this action: To help trim a $9 million budget shortfall. The savings from this move: About $250,000. Yet, this action calls for the county to add three new positions to the police department to handle training. These new positions, in salary and benefits, could wind up costing the county most of that savings. So, where's the gain? What's the point?

Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell alluded to it when said, after Tuesday's meeting, that the elimination of the training academy and the treatment of Turner was going to bring suspicion on the county. He was half right. The earlier attacks on Turner had already brought suspicion on the county. The latest move confirms that the suspicion is justified.

Whatever Turner's sins may be, what has happened to him, and the way the whole thing has been handled, cannot be justified. It is a travesty. What is rotten here is that there appears to be a vendetta, for whatever reason, against a public servant whose accusers have yet to make a convincing case that he deserves the treatment he has gotten.

Perhaps, vendetta is not the right word. A more fitting description might be "witch-hunt." It is past time for the people of Clayton County to demand answers from the commissioners on their seeming harassment of Jeff Turner. If he has done something to provoke this series of attacks on his character and livelihood, then his accusers should bring forth the evidence that would clear the air.

Right now, the whole affair has a horrible stench, and the citizens of this county need to find the source of that stench –– and remove it. Then fumigate.

Not only for Jeff Turner's sake, but for the sake of decent, open, honest government, and not giving in to those who would rule by hidden agenda, intimidation and petty vindictiveness.