The candidates running for sheriff felt the heat as Newton County residents grilled them during the Newton County Voter's League forum at the historic courthouse Monday evening.
Newton County Sheriff's Office Capt. Marty Roberts, NCSO Lt. Gwen Hightower, NCSO Lt. Bill Watterson, NCSO Lt. Ezell Brown, Dekalb County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Chris Cowan and Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton spoke in the second half of the evening after a forum with the Board of Education district 2, Board of Commissioners district 5 and tax commissioner candidates. They took eight questions from the audience of about 200 people on a wide range of topics during the open floor forum.
Discussion kicked off with a question from resident Dennis Horion about notification of sex-offenders living in hotels or motels.
While some candidates were more familiar with the laws surrounding sex-offender tracking and notification, all said they were bound to work within the parameters of the law and had to respect the right of business owners who run motels and hotels, who would likely not be in favor of such notifications, to make a living as well.
There were also a number of concerns surrounding the disbanding of the East Metro Drug Task Force. Most of the candidates said they would be in favor of reinstituting a multi-jurisdictional drug task force and bringing federal money back to the county for such purposes.
Cotton, who was on the EMDET board when the decision was made to disband, said he believed the Covington Newton County Special Investigations Unit, which was formed to pick up where EMDET left off, better served the county because it could pursue more than just drug cases and could apply all its' resources to the county.
Questions also arose about the candidates' eligibility regarding the Hatch Act, which outlines the permissible political activities of an "executive branch state and local employees who are principally employed in connection with programs financed in whole or in part by loans or grants made by the United States or a federal agency." Persons covered by the Hatch Act are prohibited from running for elected office in partisan election, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel Web site.
Hightower and Watterson said they received verification from Sheriff Joe Nichols or the county attorney that they were eligible to run for office. Brown said he was prepared to step down from his current position to run for office the first time when he ran in 1996. Cowan said his department doesn't receive federal funds at his level of command. Cotton said he had contacted the Office of Special Counsel and had verified that he was eligible to run.
Candidates were also questioned about their experience handling budgets and asked why deals were sometimes made with criminals.
All the candidates expressed some level of frustration with working hard to make a case and seeing a defendant charged with or receive lighter than expected sentences, but explained that law enforcement have little control over a case once it reaches the court system. They also described the crunch for resources and time faced by prosecutors and commended the job of the District Attorney's office.
"I think it was an excellent forum," said audience member the Rev. Robert Washington, of Bethlehem Baptist Church. "We got to know the candidates. They got to express themselves well."
Darren Bates, who also came for the first half of the forum, said the sheriff's candidate forum helped him confirm the opinion he already held of which candidate to support.
Another sheriff's candidate forum, produced by Rich Simpson, host of local cable show the Chat Room, will take place tonight at the Turner Lake Complex at 7 p.m. Seating is first come first serve for forum, which will be taped and broadcast on Charter cable channel 20. Audience members can submit questions in writing at the forum.
To submit questions ahead of time, email Rich Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org or The News at email@example.com