Members of Forsyth County’s law enforcement community heard from the candidates for sheriff, among other local offices, during a forum Wednesday night.
The event, which was also open to the public, drew about 100 people to the Sgt. D.P. Land Memorial Lodge No. 82 of the Fraternal Order of Police in Cumming.
Courtney Spriggs, a sheriff’s deputy and one of several law enforcement personnel who turned out, said she found the event “very informative.”
“I live in the county and I was interested,” she said. “I hadn’t met [many] of the candidates … and I wanted to hear from all of them to try to be an informed voter.”
Likely of most interest to many in the audience were comments from sheriff’s hopefuls Lauren McDonald, Duane Piper and incumbent Ted Paxton.
McDonald, who has served nearly 12 years as the county’s coroner, said that role led him to establish strong relationships with law enforcement.
“I appreciate what I’ve learned from you guys,” he said. “I’ve worked parallel to a lot of you guys and gals and I’ve learned a lot, and the hardest investigation you can do is a death investigation.”
Having also spent many years as a local firefighter, McDonald said he understands the frustrations sheriff’s deputies may have with their pay scale.
“I know it stinks making $11 an hour driving a $1 million ladder truck … I know your pain,” he said.
If elected sheriff, McDonald said he might handle discipline issues differently than Paxton, who was first elected in 2000.
“When we see the issues that have gone on within the department, I want to make sure that when we have a disciplinary action that it’s dealt with immediately and that it’s dealt with fairly,” he said.
Paxton countered McDonald’s comments, saying he has always taken discipline issues seriously.
“Everybody wants to be sheriff and everybody wants to chastise everybody for why somebody was disciplined,” Paxton said. “I take each and every individual discipline action very seriously and every one of them that comes to my desk gets the same amount of consideration and concern.
“The bottom line is that we have a policy manual and I go by that policy manual each and every time.”
Paxton also made note of the county’s civil service system, which he said “precludes the sheriff from being able to just wave a wand and do what he feels like he wants to do.”
“Sometimes that’s a hindrance, but the bottom line is it’s a protection for the employees,” he said.
Piper said if elected he would focus on restructuring the sheriff’s office.
“The first question I would have is, ‘Why would we want to restructure our agency?’” Piper said. “The top three reasons I can think of … our budget’s out of control, morale is in the tank and we’re stagnant.
“Any one of those three alone are enough to restructure your agency and the three of them together screams for restructuring.”
Piper said his plan would not involve any layoffs or firings, although he would eliminate the mounted patrol unit and move those deputies into other areas.
He said he would save money by a change in higher ranking officers.
“The bulk will happen from the rank above captain … to sheriff, [which] will be flattened down into one leadership team straight across,” he said.
“We can eliminate between four and seven of our high-ranking command positions and that’s minimum savings of a little bit over a half a million dollars, if we can get it and still maintain the span of control.”
He noted that reducing the budget overall would be a top priority.
Paxton stood by his leadership of the agency.
“It’s always been my commitment to each and every one of y’all to do what I had to do or that was in my power to do to provide you all with the proper tools, and the resources, equipment and training so you could go out and do your job,” he said.
McDonald said he would like to develop a deputy advisory committee to provide “a voice with the sheriff.”
“There shouldn’t be a gap that’s a buffer so that you cannot talk to your sheriff,” he said.
Attendees also heard from candidates in the races for coroner, chief magistrate judge and commission Districts 2 and 4. All were given up to 10 minutes to present their platforms.