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Georgia View: The Victor And The Spoils

Among the strangest results of this “status quo” election year came from Clayton County, where by a majority exceeding 75 percent, voters re-elected former Sheriff Victor Hill, despite his pending trial and 32-count felony indictment. Clayton voters also returned the vast majority of their Clayton County Board of Education, despite a potential second loss of accreditation for the county school system.

Clayton’s Democratic primary and run-off voters ousted two-term incumbent County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell and his so-called “Gang of Three,” which typically provided the majority vote needed to pass agenda items. Black Clayton County voters thus demonstrated their independence from simply returning black incumbents, but following the logic of some of these later general election choices is much more difficult.

When an elected official is accused of criminal wrongdoing, Georgia law authorizes the governor to appoint a special panel to investigate. This panel may recommend the official’s suspension from office or recommend allowing the individual to continue to serve. In the event Hill is convicted on one or more of the felony charges he is facing, he becomes ineligible to hold the office of sheriff. Additionally, the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) has already suspended Hill’s peace officer certification pending the outcome of his trial. 

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association (GSA) is urging Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint the special panel and immediately investigate the charges. Should the panel then call for Hill’s suspension and the governor concur, the sheriffs are further suggesting consideration of the interim appointment of retired Clayton County Sheriff Bill Lemacks. At a later point, a special election would be held to fulfill the full term of the office; Sheriff Lemacks has no plans or intentions to seek the post.

Gov. Sonny Perdue previously set the precedent of removing and appointing successor members to the Clayton County School Board in the wake of the system’s loss of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). But whether Gov. Deal sacks the sheriff-elect and later, potentially, several members of the school board is less a subject for debate than is the manner in which such changes might best be handled.

Georgia’s constitution creates the office of sheriff and recognizes the office as the chief law enforcement officer within each county.  Sheriffs and their deputies have the duty and authority to enforce all the criminal laws of Georgia. If Hill is found to be a multiple felony count law breaker, then he is clearly unfit to serve in the office of sheriff.

Gov. Deal and the approaching GOP constitutional majority in both chambers of the General Assembly may be tempted to further consolidate and continue to shift the levers of power at local, regional and state levels into friendlier GOP-leaning hands.  However, in the case of these Clayton County interim appointments, the governor is well-advised to do otherwise.

While seeking counsel from Attorney Gen-eral Sam Olens, Deal would also do well to seek out directly DeKalb County Sheriff Thom-as Brown, Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson and McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall.  These three African-American sheriffs have decades of law enforcement experience and Democratic party ties and are well respected statewide. Deal may also receive helpful input from Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills (current president of the GSA) and Chatham Coun-ty Sheriff Al St. Lawrence (who has 50-plus years of law enforcement credentials, including as the county’s Chief of Police).

Clayton is among Georgia’s most Demo-cratic counties, and in terms of demographics, minorities enjoy a majority. Any appointments that do not factor these variables into the equation run the risk of foisting leadership on a community that it will not follow, support or endure. Time and again, from statewide to local offices, Georgia voters have demonstrated that they prefer electing their own leaders. 

Yes, as we all know following an election, to the victor goes the spoils. In this case the victor, Victor Hill, may not again enjoy the benefits of his office; but if the selection of his interim and potential successor is not handled deftly and with great care, it may be Clayton Coun-ty that does all the spoiling.

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