In a Thursday night forum organized by the Bulloch County Republican party, current Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown and challenger Keith Howard addressed overtime, dirt roads, mental health and the 2nd Amendment, among other things.
The forum, led by Republican Party member Lawton Sack, was livestreamed by AllOnGeorgia and can be viewed on the news blog’s Facebook page.
In opening statements, each candidate talked about themselves and what they hope to accomplish.
Brown introduced himself as a Portal native who was “raised hard on the farm” and developed a strong work ethic. He listed past experience, having joined the United States Air Force after graduating from Portal High School, then working for Georgia Southern University for five years before joining the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, where he worked for over 20 years under former sheriffs Arnold Ray Akins and Lynn Anderson. Brown did not mention his previous but brief employment with the Portal Police Department for six months prior to being hired at GS.
He said he “learned a lot” from Anderson and Akins and that one notable thing about him is that he loves Bulloch County.
Howard said he runs a “successful small business” that shows he has a capable business sense and listed his past experience as a Georgia State Patrol trooper for many years, as well as employment by the Jenkins County Sheriff’s Office as both deputy and chief deputy. He has also been a firefighter, he said.
If elected, Howard vowed to be “tough on crime,” transparent and accessible to all.
“Accountability is a big word and covers a lot of territory,” he said.
Partisan or not?
Sack asked each candidate whether they felt the sheriff’s race should be partisan and if they think the role of sheriff should be a political position. Both said they felt party should not have anything to do with the office.
“This is an issue that has haunted me since 2016,” Howard said.
A lifelong Republican, he ran for Bulloch County sheriff then under the Democratic ticket in an effort to garner votes from all parties in the general election. Some voters may wish to vote outside their party in some races, and “you’ve got to represent all of the people and treat everyone equally.”
He said he has always had Republican values.
“I back (Georgia Gov. Brian) Kemp and (President Donald) Trump, but I vote for the candidate, not the party. I am conservative, budget minded, and supporting the 2nd Amendment is a no-brainer.”
Brown also feels the office should be nonpartisan.
“We don’t ask if somebody is Republican or Democrat when we respond to a call. I feel like as a Republican I can be conservative,” have strong work ethics, and support the “right to keep and bear arms.”
Sack asked the two how they feel about Georgia’s laws.
“You enforce them, but you don’t make them,” he said.
One law Howard said he would like to see strengthened is the hands-free law prohibiting drivers from eating, holding a cellphone and other distracting behavior, which he said is the major cause of a large number of driving accidents and deaths.
Also, he is in favor of freeing up jail space and manpower by decriminalizing misdemeanor possession of marijuana. The Statesboro Police Department can issue citations instead of making actual arrests for such misdemeanor offenses, he said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office could do the same.
“Issue citations and let them come to court,” he said. “A misdemeanor possession charge could be just a seed, and a misdemeanor paraphernalia charge could be just a clip. Misdemeanor arrests like that keep jails crowded.”
In the past, Brown has talked about the Bulloch County Jail being overcrowded, but he said Thursday he is not in favor of reducing arrests to citations for offenses such as misdemeanor marijuana possession.
“I feel like some of our laws could be a little stronger, but I am not going to mention any of them,” he said. “Marijuana is a criminal offense, and I disagree with decriminalization. We’re happy with the laws of the state of Georgia.”
Sack asked whether either candidate felt new laws are needed.
“Not any that I would bring up,” Brown said.
“There are more laws on the books now than there are people to enforce them,” he said.
2nd Amendment and school safety
Naturally, both candidates are proponents of the 2nd Amendment.
“I am for it 100 percent, but (people) need training before they can carry and get a license,” Howard said.
As for open carry laws, he feels it is better to conceal weapons but respects the right to openly carry arms. He used an example of a person robbing a restaurant who might see someone with a pistol on their hip “as a threat,” while an armed person with a concealed weapon may be better able to stop the robbery.
Brown said he supports 2nd Amendment rights but disapproves of some mandates.
“It is part of my sworn oath to protect the constitution, but I don’t support ‘red flags’ without justification.”
When asked about school resource officers, Brown said he implemented the program “as promised” during his 2016 campaign, but Howard pointed out that former sheriff Lynn Anderson actually launched the SRO program before leaving office.
Brown praised the program as well as the working relationship with area schools, adding that the trained officers’ presence helps with “safety, drug and gang resistance.”
Howard gave accolades to the program Brown continued, adding that if elected, he would see to it that the CHAMPS program, designed by the Georgia Sheriff’s Association for fifth-graders, is added to the DARE and Explorer programs currently utilized. The Bulloch County sheriff’s deputies involved in those programs “do superb work,” he said.
“I’d like to continue, expand and get parents involved.”
“What about armed teachers?” Sack asked.
Howard referred to Long County, where he said teachers are allowed to bear arms in class, and agreed with the practice “as long as they have training and are supported by the Board of Education.” In an active shooter situation, “it is a no brainer that it is good to have someone in there” with weapons who can defend students in danger, he said.
“That is a school board, superintendent issue,” Brown said, adding that he supports the idea “as long as they are trained.”
“We would like to know they are in there.”
Dirt road, large county challenges
Bulloch County is a very large county with well over 700 miles of unpaved roads, Sack said, asking each candidate what they could do to alleviate slow response times and other challenges, such as people speeding on rural roads because they feel encountering law enforcement is unlikely.
“I would reach out to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety” for help, Brown said, including flashing signs that record and display speeds. He said the county currently has one such sign, mounted on a trailer and moveable.
Howard said Bulloch County commissioners are “working on” the dirt roads issues, “going back to ditching and cleaning out sewers.” Making roads smoother would help deputies reach their destinations more safely, he said.
Brown said the challenges affect all calls, not just traffic calls, and once again defended his overtime amounts, which surpassed $1 million last year.
“If you do not add people, overtime is going to go up,” he said. “I support the people in this office for the overtime they make. It is a lot easier to pay overtime than to hire more officers.”
According to an article published in the Statesboro Herald in July 2019, overtime for the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office and Bulloch County Jail jumped from $627,955 in fiscal year 2018 to $1,281,647 in FY 2019.
The highest paid officer that year made around $25,800 in overtime, in addition to his regular pay. Twenty employees, including office personnel, jail staff, transport and court officers and maintenance staff each made over $15,000 overtime in addition to regular pay, according to county records. Some more than doubled their overtime from 2018 to 2019.
At the time of the article, Brown attributed the increase to county growth and pay raises.
Money, money, money
Facing funding issues, there are strategies that can help ease the pinch to the purse, according to Howard.
“We have to get manpower up to get overtime down,” he said. “We can get grants, do everything we can do to work with the commissioners, be open with the media, and we have got to be transparent. It takes a team — one mule can’t pull a two-bottom plow. (Adding deputies) has got to be worked into the budget, and commissioners know that. Safety has been an issue, and staffing has been an issue.”
Brown said he has “made it clear that we have to broaden aspects of the Bulloch County Jail.”
“I have said from the very beginning we need more people. I am not going to leave a shift uncovered.”
If keeping shifts filled means overtime, “so be it,” he was quoted saying in a Herald article earlier this year.
Sack asked about previous plans for the Sheriff’s Office to encompass the correctional institute in a plan to alleviate overcrowding and allow inmates to work off time sentenced.
“The work camp is a separate entity,” Brown said. “I am still willing, but this does not fix the problem. The conversation (between the Sheriff’s Office and commissioners) stopped.”
But even if that plan happened, “we will still need new jail pods, and the inmate population is not adequate” to do the work, he said.
Howard referred to a quote in a 2019 Herald article in which Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch said “the wheel fell off the wagon” regarding communication between the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners, himself and Brown about the overcrowding and correctional institute issue.
He said Brown was given 40 beds in the correctional institute that he never filled; he stopped taking federal inmates, which “cost the county $1 million” in revenue; and that it makes more sense that “inmates can be used for trash detail and we can get the federal inmates back, using that money to cut back on overtime and funds.”
Small towns, consolidation
Both Brown and Howard disagreed with any suggestion that Bulloch County and Statesboro law enforcement agencies consolidate. Each expressed respect and appreciation for the police departments in Statesboro, Brooklet, Portal and Register, where officers often assist sheriff’s deputies in cases outside their city limits, just as deputies sometimes help them with city cases.
Sack asked both candidates their opinions on mental health issues and law enforcement.
“I would like to continue and expand mental health training for deputies,” Howard said, adding that he believes jail is no place for those with mental issues.
“I will house no juveniles or the mentally ill in my jail — we will seek a doctor” to place them where needed.
He would also train deputies “to de-escalate situations instead of arrests, if possible.”
Brown said deputies are currently being trained to handle those with mental health issues.
“We can’t turn them away; we must deal with them, either in jail or out on the road. This is a passion of mine, and I have spoken to NAMI” (the National Alliance for Mentally Ill) about the challenges. “It is a real and present problem.”
Both he and Howard embraced the idea of encouraging children to learn about law enforcement.
“It is an honor for a kid to want to shadow, show interest in what we do,” Brown said.
He said he likes to talk to high school students about the profession, and “I pray someone comes along who wants to do what we do.”
Again, Howard said he would use programs like CHAMPS and a Citizen Police Academy-style course to encourage young and older people alike to learn more about law enforcement. He said he would develop a reserve deputy program using retirees and veterans for some tasks, and if more young people are exposed to the real world of law enforcement, “if they have got the bug, they will jump into this head over feet.”
Win or lose
Sack then asked each man what he would say to the other in the event he lost the race.
“I’d say Noel has done this job to the best of his ability,” Howard said, adding that he agrees with some methods Brown has used in running the office, but disagrees with others.
“I think I can do some things better and make changes. I have a passion to be in office. I have nothing to say against him, but I feel (the office) can be run better.”
Brown said if Howard won the race in the June 9 primary election, “I would congratulate Keith. I have known him many years, worked wrecks with him, directed traffic for him. He has always been a help to us.
“If he wins, I’d make sure he got the training he needs to be sheriff, meaning sheriff school in Forsyth … and that I’d make sure he had transportation to get there.”
If he lost the race, Brown said, “I would not be that person. I would not run, tuck tail and cry. I would assist (Howard) in any way I could to make a smooth transfer.”
In closing, Brown was afforded the chance to ask Howard a question. He asked, if elected, “would you cut services or overtime?”
Howard said he would find a solution to lessen overtime while keeping the services intact.
“You can’t cut out services. I would have to find a way to cut back on overtime — using grants, programs, getting the federal funds back, hiring off-duty to offset overtime.”
But when posed the same question, Brown said, “There is no answer — if you cut one, you cut the other.”
In final remarks, Howard touted “experience, honesty, integrity and energy to be your next sheriff.” He said he is qualified both in law enforcement and successfully running an efficient business. With him in office, Bulloch County residents would get “transparency, and I will not waste taxpayers’ money. I will instill core values” and work with all other law enforcement agencies to get all resources available.
Brown was brief in his last remarks.
“I have been in office for three and a half years, and like I said before, sheriffing is not about the sheriff, it is about all the people. I pray that I have always kept you safe. … I pray I have done all I can do for you and can continue.”
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.