CONYERS — The race for sheriff of Rockdale County will have voters choosing between an experienced candidate and one who says he wants to bring a fresh approach to the department.
Incumbent Republican Sheriff Jeff Wigington and Democrat Eric Levett, who is a sergeant in the Sheriff’s Office, answered questions in an amicable forum Tuesday night sponsored by the South Rockdale Civic Association.
In opening comments, Levett, who has 20 years in law enforcement, said he is concerned about the increase in crime over the past 10 years and pledged to make sure deputies have the tools and resources they need to reduce crime. He also said he would hold town hall meetings so he can be held accountable for his actions.
Wigington, who has been sheriff for 16 years and has worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 35 years, pointed to his years of experience, combined with the experience of his command staff — a total of 209 years in law enforcement. He added that he believes deputies have the necessary equipment to do their jobs. “Unfortunately, our salaries for our deputies are not what they need to be …” he said, “but I also understand that these are tough economic times.”
The candidates answered questions from the audience on a wide range of topics, including budgeting experience and hiring, firing and promotion practices.
Levett was asked to comment on his plan to hire a chief deputy if elected. Levett responded that he is considering filling that position and has three people in mind, none of whom are employed by the Sheriff’s Office.
Wigington, who does not have a chief deputy, said he intends to continue that policy.
“There is a position in the Sheriff’s Office budget for one, and I purposely did not have one because I want to be involved; I don’t want someone else running the department for me,” Wigington said.
In a follow-up question, an audience member asked Levett if he would be “another Victor Hill,” referring to the controversial sheriff of Clayton County who fired a large number of deputies when he was first elected to office.
“I’m a fair person,” said Levett. “I do believe in treating people equally.”
Levett said he would fire employees who violate policy or break the law, but he has no plans for widespread dismissals.
“I did not agree with what Victor Hill did; I was not a supporter of his and I do not support him now,” Levett said.
In a related response about promotion and discipline practices in the Sheriff’s Office, Wigington said the department has had a nepotism policy for years and a promotion policy that he implemented when he was elected. In addition, Wigington said a Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office Merit Board governs all firing or demotion decisions that are not for cause.
On the issue of budgeting, Levett acknowledged he has little experience in that area, but said he would surround himself with people who are qualified for that task. Levett also said he received training in budgeting through the Professional Management/Supervision Program at the Georgia Law Enforcement Command College at Columbus State University.
Levett pointed out that he, like Wigington, would have to learn the budgeting process on the job.
“Eric’s right,” said Wigington. “But I was a lieutenant for 15 years before I ran for sheriff, and at that time a lieutenant was a uniform commander position, so I did do part of that budget process.”
Wigington said he also gained some knowledge of budgeting through college coursework. Wigington has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and public administration and a master’s degree in public administration.
In closing, Wigington said the election comes down to experience.
“I think Eric’s a good guy,” Wigington said. “If he wasn’t he wouldn’t be working for me. I like to think I’m a good guy; so it isn’t about who is a good guy.”
Wigington highlighted some of his professional accomplishments, particularly being named chairman and vice chairman of a metro Atlanta emergency response organization and the only Georgia sheriff appointed to serve on the Georgia Homeland Security Task Force.
“The big difference in this race is just experience,” he said. “Who has done the job and has a proven track record.”
Levett closed by saying that while he doesn’t have Wigington’s experience, he will continue to learn. He said he is family-oriented, takes a hands-on approach and believes in connecting with people in the community.
“I feel that we are still kind of separated,” Levett said of the Rockdale community. “I think we need someone who can bring us all together, and I think I can.”