CONYERS -- Local candidates squared off Saturday during a public forum that touched on a wide variety of topics, including the upcoming vote on T-SPLOST, economic development, raises for county employees and even Trayvon Martin, the teenager shot and killed earlier this year in Florida.
The forum was the second one hosted by the Rockdale NAACP, the Citizen's Progressive Club and NewRock Legal Society.
David Shipp with the Rockdale County Republican Party and Stanley Williams with the Rockdale County Democratic Party moderated the forum at Peek's Chapel Baptist Church on Old Salem Road.
Today's Citizen covers comments from the races for Rockdale County sheriff and tax commissioner. Comments from candidates seeking seats on the Board of Commissioners will be published later this week.
Jeff Wigington is seeking his fifth term as sheriff of Rockdale County. He will face in the General Election either Donald Ferguson or Eric Levett, who will square off in the July 31 Democratic Primary Election.
Wigington has more than 35 years law enforcement experience, 15 of which have been as sheriff. He rose through the ranks of the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office, starting his career as a dispatcher. He said RCSO is considered a model agency for other law enforcement agencies. Columbus State University offers classes in its Professional Management Program at the Sheriff's Office.
Ferguson, who challenged Wigington in the 2008 election, is a retired captain from the Fulton County Sheriff's Office, where he worked as the jail supervisor, day watch commander and a trainer. He touted his administrative and training experience, and said he is pursuing his doctorate of education in organizational leadership.
Levett, a lifelong resident of Rockdale County, has 20 years of law enforcement experience, most with the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office. He has worked in most divisions, including uniform, COPS, and as an investigator in criminal investigation.
When asked about implementing a drug rehabilitation in the jail. Ferguson pledged to place a program that would help "reactivate" inmates so they can be productive citizens. Wigington said there is no drug intervention program, but the jail does offer a number of other programs, including Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, parenting classes, and chaplaincy. In addition, he said the Rockdale County jail is one of only two in the state that not only teaches GED classes, but also administers the test so inmates can receive their GED while in jail.
Levett said that the Rockdale County Jail is a facility that incarcerates, but he also pointed out that the Sheriff's Office operates more than just the jail and courthouse security.
"We are a full-service agency that enforces the law and investigates crime," he said.
Levett said that as a former seventh-grade GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training) instructor, he is committed to educating youth about the realities of crime. Ferguson said he and his deputies would personally get involved with children as young as 3 years old and mentor, coach and engage with them.
When asked about deputies' pay, Ferguson and Levett agreed that an incentive program should be implemented to keep morale high. Wigington pointed out that the Board of Commissioners sets the budget for the Sheriff's Office and its salaries, but that he has shaved his budget. Wigington pointed out that the Board of Commissioners sets the budget for the Sheriff's Office and its salaries, but that he has shaved his budget in order to reinstate three holidays that were cut by the BOC. He said he also cut his budget and offered to give $900,000 back to the county so employees could receive a raise, even though commissioners did not accept his offer.
The final question Williams asked the candidates was how the RCSO would respond if the Trayvon Martin shooting that occurred in Florida happened here.
All the candidates said they would keep the community informed, but would be careful to take the time to fully investigate the matter before releasing any information.
-- Tax Commissioner
Dan Ray has served as Rockdale County's tax commissioner for 20 years and will face Democratic opposition from former Rockdale County Chief of Staff R.J. Hadley.
Hadley pledged to bring open leadership and improved customer service to the Tax Commissioners office. Specifically, he advocated for operating Saturday hours for people who cannot make it to the office during the workweek.
"We need to make it as easy as possible to collect tax payments," he said.
Ray said he has the relevant education and proven expertise and track record to continue as tax commissioner. He said his office has had a 99 percent collection rate for the past 20 years.
"Good customer service has always been the cornerstone of my office," Ray said, adding that he does hold extended hours on Wednesday. He said that for about four years he did open on Saturdays, but it was a financial burden because so few people took advantage of those hours.
Most of the questions for the candidates were procedural, such as who sets the tax rates, how taxes are collected, and how many tax bill appeals have there been in 2011.
Ray easily answered the questions and Hadley said he would easily come up to speed on the specifics, but his focus would be educating the public and being responsive to citizens.