Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of candidates running for local offices in the Nov. 6 General Election.
Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington has spent more than three decades in law enforcement, but he’s nowhere near ready to turn in his badge.
"Some people look at the fact that I've worked for the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office for 35 years and say, 'You need to retire,'" said Wigington, 53, who is completing his fourth term as sheriff and is seeking reelection in November. "But I can't retire I'm still young. I was still a teenager when I went to work as a radio operator and jailer in 1977."
And it is Wigington's long tenure in law enforcement that is perhaps his greatest asset on the campaign trail. Wigington, a Republican, will be opposed by Democrat Eric Levett -- an RCSO sergeant -- in November's General Election.
"I never assume anything; I've always taken my opponents very seriously and have worked hard and I will continue to do that," said Wigington, who was first elected sheriff in 1996. "And this race is all about experience."
As is the case everywhere, the nation's sagging economy has had a considerable impact on the community's crime situation, and Wigington said he's just as committed to "a safe Rockdale County" as he was when first elected.
"The challenge for the last three or four years has been the economy," he said. "With a bad economy, sometimes you see people take desperate measures when they're out of work, and sometimes you get some less-than-desirables moving into your area. Our thefts are up some but crime in general is not."
One key to getting a handle on crime in the community, Wigington added, is maintaining a top-shelf staff of employees.
"Staying on top of crime, especially over the last several years because of the economy, has been a challenge," he said. "Another challenge is keeping our people engaged and motivated, because our deputies haven't received a raise in five years. Fortunately, it's not that much better anywhere else, but when the economy turns around, we'll start losing people to other counties if we can't pay them a comparable rate."
In his time as sheriff, Wigington has placed a premium on professionalism, giving employees access to college-level training through Columbus State University and programs recognized by the Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council. He has also supervised the construction of a women's jail annex, law enforcement administrative campus and the expansion of the county jail.
And he's served as sheriff during the greatest period of growth in the county and in the department.
"We went from being a relatively small department to a good-sized department," said Wigington, who holds a bachelor's degree from Brenau and a master's from Columbus State. "We've got almost 300 employees and an $18 million budget, and we have had as many as 600-plus in the jail. This has grown into a pretty big job. When I was elected, I think we had less than 150 people when I took over and the budget was considerably less. Unfortunately, the reason our budget has grown so much over the last 10 years is because of the jail.""My problem with having a list of the things I need to do or I want to do is, I'm already in office so if there's something that needs to be done, I need to be doing it now and not over the next four years," he said. "We're always going to stay up on technology and we'll always look for the most innovative ways to do it. If I had a list, I should already be doing it."
Wigington and Beth, his wife of 31 years, have three grown sons (one who is in law enforcement in Atlanta and another who is a first lieutenant in the Marines) and one granddaughter.
He said that he has never ceased in his intentions to maintain a safe county in which to live and work.
"Everybody just wants to live in a safe community and I think most people are confident we're doing our very best to keep Rockdale as safe as we can and that we'll continue to do that," he said. "We've got a lot of experienced people and they do an excellent job. As sheriff, I get to be in charge, but when it's all said and done, it's the good work of a lot of people who work for me that make me look so good."
For more information, visit www.jeffwigington.com