Candidates in the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office race are looking forward to a forum Tuesday evening where they hope to address goals and issues each believes are important to county residents.
Incumbent Sheriff Noel Brown is challenged by former Bulloch County deputy Rey Rodriguez, currently working for a neighboring county sheriff's office. While each has expressed views that the sheriff's seat should be nonpartisan, Brown is running on the Republican ticket, while Rodriguez is on the ballot as a Democrat.
The forum, sponsored by the Statesboro Herald, will be held at the Emma Kelly Theater on Tuesday at 6 p.m. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the forum is not open to the public.
However, it will be broadcast live on the Grice Connect Facebook page. A link to the page will be available on the Herald's Facebook page and at www.statesboroherald.com Tuesday evening. Also, the forum will be videotaped in its entirety and available to watch on demand beginning Wednesday afternoon on www.statesboroherald.com. Reporters will cover the forum for full coverage in the Statesboro Herald.
With sheriff's office expansions nearing completion, staffing is an immediate concern, Brown said.
"It is something I will face if I am re-elected and something Rey will face if he wins the election," he said.
Maintaining enough people — both sworn deputies and office and jail staff — to ensure citizen safety is top priority, he said. Realizing increased staffing will mean added expense, he said, "we can have a safe county, or we can brag about being a county with the lowest taxes."
Brown said he understands the desire to keep taxes low, but staffing is a need, not a want. Not only does he need more deputies on the road, he said, he needs at least 30 new hires to man the new offices, intake area, and other areas that will soon be completed.
Brown said he and Bulloch County commissioners have had numerous discussions about budgets, including overtime costs that have reached more than $1 million. Brown said overtime will continue until more deputies are hired.
Rodriguez said if he is elected, he plans to find ways to work within the budget and reduce overtime.
"I will focus on the budget, how to save taxpayers' hard-earned dollars and avoid the commissioners having to raise or double taxes because of overspending," he said. "Overtime is out of control and being abused. Some deputies on salary are making overtime, and some deputies make more money that the sheriff and chief deputy."
Issues at county jail
Rodriguez said he is alarmed by reports from families of inmates at the Bulloch County Jail.
On his Facebook page, Rodriguez posted photos that allegedly show what he called questionable jail conditions, including mold and bedbugs.
"My first concern is the jail," he said. Many people have told him that "the jail has a lot of problems, safety issues, staffing issues, health issues," he said. "These must be fixed quickly before they continue to spiral out of control and lead to lawsuits being filed."
Immediate attention to jail conditions should be priority, "and not focus on expansion," he said.
But Brown said photos shown on Rodriguez's Facebook page depicting jail conditions are not accurate.
"Yes, we have had issues with bed bugs" and other problems, which he said are a constant challenge in any jail, "but we take care of those problems," Brown said.
Inmates are provided with means to clean their areas, and jail staff ensure they do so, he said, adding that many complaints lodged to family members about the jail are simply from "disgruntled inmates." A local pest control agency also has a contract for regular services at the jail, he said.
The Health Department recently completed an inspection of the jail and is preparing a report. The Herald will report on the findings of the inspection when it is made public.
Relationships and cold cases
Rodriguez said that if he is elected, he will rebuild relationships with other law enforcement agencies and seek help with unsolved cases such as the Dec. 22 disappearance of Travis Eric Smith, aka Eric Waters, from the Lake Collins community near Portal.
Despite numerous tips, there have been no answers in the nine-month investigation, and in spite of requests by the victim's family to seek assistance from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Brown has elected not to contact the GBI.
"They can't do anything we can't do," he has said.
"I will work on cold cases and missing person cases by calling in the GBI for assistance," he said, adding that he also will "participate with federal agencies with child exploitation and human trafficking. I will assign a deputy to the DEA and US Marshal Task force and rebuild relationships with the Governor's Office of Highway Safety."
Brown said the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office enjoys good working relationships with other local agencies. As for the Eric Waters case, he said investigators are continuing to follow leads and pursue the case.
About the candidates
Before election as sheriff in 2016, Brown worked with the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office for 18 years and achieved rank as the senior deputy in charge of civil and warrants with the Courts Service Division. In 2013 he received the first Deputy of the Year recognition.
Before joining the sheriff's office, Brown worked with the Portal Police Department for a brief time, then with the Georgia Southern University Police Department as patrolman and assistant shift supervisor. He served in the United States Air Force during the Gulf War, participating in both Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
He said being sheriff has always been a "childhood dream."
Rodriguez was named Deputy of the Year twice during his time with the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office. One of his honors followed Rodriguez's assistance in the rescue of a young boy trapped under an overturned utility vehicle. He said he wants to bring change to Bulloch County, eliminate "the good ol' boy system" and represent the people "who are not being heard."
Running for sheriff "felt like a calling … not a childhood dream," he said. "I decided to run on my record as a former Bulloch County road patrol sergeant, a SWAT member, field training officer; a law enforcement officer with 16 years of honorable service and as a 20-year U.S. Army veteran and soldier who is still serving today."
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.