I grew up in Fayette County when it still had legitimate claim to consider itself rural. Randall Johnson became Sheriff before I entered elementary school. He retired almost 6 years ago after 32 years on the job. During the time he was Sheriff, he was Fayette County Government. We were a law and order county, and he was the law. Despite no longer living there (and with all respect to current Sheriff Babb who grew up a few pastures over from me), I still wish he were Sheriff today.
He was a man of the community and he handled his politics well. His party switch cemented Fayette in becoming a Republican County from being a Democratic one. He almost never endorsed candidates, but you didn’t run for office without seeking the advice of Randall. Well, you didn’t if you were smart.
He is a family friend, and had known my father since their childhood. In short, he had the community trust to do his job as he saw fit. He took care of us, gave us confidence that he or one of his deputies would be there when needed, and kept our community a nice place to live.
I imagine most rural communities feel the same way about their Sheriff. When the job is done well, the office has the ability to transcend politics. When it’s not, the power given to Georgia sheriffs by Georgia’s constitution can multiply problems if that power is abused.
House Bill 1 seeks to rein in a bit of that power. It is a reformation of Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws. It provides some timeframes/deadlines, specifies some required procedures, and otherwise seeks to add oversight and regulation to a system that relies on a great deal of trust. Randall and the Fayette Commission had quite a few rounds over these issues.
Randall always won those, and when given the opportunity, I voted his side on those ballot tests. I trusted him, and he earned that trust.
The problem with this trust is that it is extended to every Georgia Sheriff. That’s 159 people with this wide latitude to take property and manage those funds in a less than transparent manner.
In rural communities, it is easier to track what is going on with a Sheriff that is a known quantity. The check and balance of a ballot box is more real.
24 or so counties make up metropolitan Atlanta depending on which definition you use, but those counties contain over 5 million Georgians. That’s more than half the state, living in counties with populations exceeding 100,000 people. That’s the kind of place where it’s unlikely your Dad grew up with the Sheriff. More likely, most of these folks will never even meet him or her.
The detachment of more than half of Georgians from their Sheriff changes the political calculus for members of the Georgia Sheriff’s association. Over 100 of them come from mostly rural counties, where they are likely to know their neighbors. As such, when they meet to discuss legislation, their 159 members make decisions with a decidedly rural viewpoint.
And yet, when the average Georgia voter decides there is or isn’t a problem, the majority of those votes come from urban and suburban areas. And therein lies the conflict over HB1.
Metro Atlanta voters are beginning to identify the problems with broad powers of a sheriff when they see that Victor Hill can be re-elected to the position. They have seen Gwinnett Turf wars between Sheriff Butch Conway and County Commissioner Charles Bannister which ended with Bannister being arrested for DUI -but not charged with anything after blowing 0.0. And they see the potential for additional…headline amusement with the potential of a DeKalb Sheriff Vernon Jones.
There is great potential for abuse of current powers if put into the wrong hands. The Georgia Sheriff’s Association should acknowledge the political reality that the state’s population does not match their membership makeup. And the very real potential that a case or two of a highly publicized abuse will likely make the detached Atlanta area majority of voters demand of their politicians “why wasn’t more done sooner?”
I miss my Sheriff, and I miss the trust that we used to be able to give to elected officials like him. I also know that we live in a different world, with different expectations of accountability, and an electorate which tends to overreact when small problems that go uncorrected become bigger ones.
HB 1 is a decent middle ground to codify reasonable procedures regarding civil forfeitures. The Sheriff’s Association should strongly considering taking the small step forward in public accountability now, before a public problem forces a much worse deal later.
Most Georgians still trust and respect our sheriffs. HB1 does nothing to disrespect their years of service and commitment to their individual counties and communities, but rather seeks to protect their reputations. How awful would it be for my Sheriff Johnson to be seen as just another Victor Hill. The office of Sheriff, statewide is just one headline-worthy corruption scandal away from a statewide reconsideration of the very office. And if that scandal turned metro Atlanta voters against the idea of Sheriffs, rural Georgia would lose the service of some very fine women and men.