Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgia has many pockets of institutional political power. Few can rival that of the local sheriff. A campaign for sheriff will increase voter turnout in most areas of the state well beyond the upper bands of expectations. Once elected, a sheriff that remains free of scandal can generally count on having the position as long as he wants it.
In most non-urban or inner metro areas the local sheriff is the law. County police forces aren’t common in most parts of the state. The person who is held responsible for low crime rates and the public safety is the sheriff. And in most communities, those that serve with longevity are revered by most and known to all.
Attempts to interfere with the power of local sheriffs are often futile efforts and are generally ill advised. I was able to witness quite a few of these skirmishes growing up, as my home county of Fayette grew from a rural county of 12,000 to one holding 100,000 mostly newcomers. Sheriff Randall Johnson served 32 years presiding over the growth and change.
There were quite a few county commissioners that attempted to quell his power. Almost all came out on the losing end of that battle. Toward the end of his tenure there were lawsuits between his office and the county. Commissioners wanted control over the seized assets confiscated during drug busts. In politics, of course, he who controls the purse controls the power. Commissioners didn’t like the fact that there was a large sum of money and purchasing outside their control.
While the battles were fought in courts, the real battles were fought at the ballot box. Sheriff Johnson withstood every challenge during his career, retiring on his own terms. Many of the commissioners who opposed him were not so lucky. Of course, them not understanding the politics of their own county, they seemed to have created their own luck.
The same battle was brought statewide this session with House Bill 1, a law to move the management of assets forfeited from drug busts to county commissioners. Folks from Fayette County probably could have advised how well this would have gone over, but apparently no one asked. And sometimes, it’s fun to let those under the gold dome learn some political lessons for themselves. After all, as Georgia’s population has concentrated itself in the Atlanta suburbs, many now view the rural sheriff as a caricature rather than the seminal community leader that he is in much of the rest of the state.
The reaction local sheriffs were swift and blunt. A quick Google search reveals sheriff’s across the state giving interviews to local papers and/or writing letters to the editor asking residents to contact their legislator asking them to vote against HB 1. Sheriff’s don’t generally ask for much from the public that holds them in high regard, so when they do there is usually action. Especially when they go directly to the people making the case that managing those funds as they see fit is a vital part of the local effort to keep crime low.
The reaction from the legislators seemed a bit more surprised. A few took to Facebook grousing “…the lobbyists/groups that have the most influence are not corporations but are the taxpayer paid mayors, county commissioners, and sheriffs.” Another said “One thing I have taken from tonight is that tax payer supported lobbyist and other text payer supported groups have a significant influence over legislation in Georgia….”
With respect to these Representatives, they’re still not learning the proper lesson. Referring to “mayors county commissioners, and sheriffs” as taxpayer supported lobbying groups is little short of arrogant. While they are including organizations such as the Georgia Municipal Association under this umbrella, those groups serve those that are duly elected while the local folks are tending to the jobs they were elected to do. Those local officials are actually leaders elected by the taxpayers, just like those in the legislator. And many have a closer relationship with the people they serve than legislators.
There has been a growing disconnect between local officials and legislators for some time, largely over budgetary matters. The growing sense of resentment of locally elected officials for not submitting to greater control from the state is concerning.
Local control still means something in much of the state. The taxpayer supported legislators occasionally need to be reminded of that.