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Sheriff candidates square off at Kiwanis forum

By LISA LAW

AMERICUS- As classical piano music, played by Alwen Yeung, filled the inside of the Georgia Southwestern State University Faculty dining area, the Kiwanis Club members of Americus gathered for their May 13th meeting. The highlight of the meeting was a Sheriffs’ forum consisting of incumbent Sheriff of Sumter County, Pete Smith, and his opposing candidate, Phillip Daniel, who are competing in the May 24th primary election.
The purpose of the forum was to inform members of the group about the candidates’ past and future experience as well as their aspirations for the future of Sumter County Sheriff’s office law enforcement.
Director of University Relations and Kiwanis Program chairman, Steven Snyder, welcomed the attendees and assured them that the Kiwanis Club did not intend for the forum to serve as an endorsement of any particular candidate. Snyder stated added the candidates would draw numbers to determine who would speak first. Snyder also when onto explain the speakers would have seven minutes each and then three more minutes, with a total of ten minutes each.
Daniel was the first speaker up. He started by saying, “I am not a politician. You will not find me at BBQ’s,” he said adding respectfully, “You will see me out working.”
Daniel, making the best of his seven minutes, spoke of his 28 years of experience at the Sheriff’s office. From his start as a jailer, he made his way through the ranks to Captain. He has served in many Emergency Response teams including becoming  Sumter County’ s first  Associate Director of Emergency Management. He went on to say that he has also worked closely with FEMA and GEMA .
Daniel said that one of his best attributes is his belief in being fair and honest.  “I will be transparent. I have nothing to hide,” he said explaining he wanted to get back to serving the community.
“You will find no county property in my yard. I also will hold my employees all accountable,” he said addressing the audience.  “The tax monies are your money not my money,” he said ending by saying that it would be his responsibility to use tax monies efficiently. He then thanked the audience humbly and said he would appreciate their vote.
Smith then stood up to address the audience. He began with a quote from Ronald Reagan’s book, ‘God and Country’ and another quote from John Wayne. “Independence, love of freedom, honesty, strength and charity which has made our country strong,” Smith said as he elaborated on the qualities of real heroes and the lack of them in today’s society.
Smith then went on to explain that he has 44 years of law enforcement under his belt; 32 with the Georgia State Patrol where he retired in 2003, and 12 years with the Sheriff’s Department as Sheriff. He added that there are many challenges in the world and the community. He described an incident of a young person who was in his office just last week, a meth addict and his parents. He described the addiction as having a strong hold on this person and how sad it is to witness a child who has turned to drugs.
“I question myself often of how well will I serve?  Will the decisions I make be fair for all involved,” he said. “Yes, no matter how large or small the decision,” he assured the audience, stating that he would be fair to the best of his ability.
Smith ended by saying that, at the end of the day he was responsible for all. “I am personally responsible for the outcome,” he said explaining his level of responsibility as a Sheriff. “My law enforcement officers are my eyes and ears… We have no more crime than communities our size.” He added that he is also responsible for breaking the bad news to his officers that they will not be receiving a comparable pay rate, to officers in other communities of similar size.
“If they don’t get a pay raise because of political maneuvers, I am responsible for telling them, “Smith said repeatedly, “I am responsible.”
Smith ended with, “I don’t have a big house and a fancy car. I go to the beach once a year. I have a farmer’s tan and a farmer’s work ethics.” He ended with a blessing of the audience and modestly asked for their vote and the opportunity to continue to serve Sumter County.
Daniel stood up, taking advantage of his last three minutes to speak to the crowd. He said he would address crime, drugs, and shootings which are increasing steadily in Sumter County. He also said he would work on bringing back the morale of the Sheriff’s office by treating people fairly, stating that promotions would not be solely given to the, ‘Good Ole Boys.’ He added he would not be changing tax ID’s, referring to a recent forensic audit which was conducted on the Sheriff’s department.  Also, he said he would not use boats for his personal gain. Daniel ended by assuring the attendees he would work with all parties to improve the Sheriff’s department, save tax payers money, and accomplish more for the County.
Smith stood up to address the audience for his final statements.  Smith seemed more aggressive, as he addressed the crowd this time, stating, “I don’t know about a boat for personal gain.” He stated that his boat hasn’t been in the water for ten years.
Smith took advantage of his three minutes by adding that some of his law enforcement officers, beginning out with the lowest rates of pay, start at $10.83 an hour.
“That’s not much for putting your life on the line,” Smith said, adding that Sumter County does have gangs. He went on to elaborate on a program which is designed to addresses gang issues.
“I have a school division within the department who work with the DARE program,” he said, explaining that the program has been shortened to six weeks. The program consists of all of the fifth graders in Sumter County attending public and private schools. During the six weeks, they are educated on Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
“If we don’t have just one of them to turn from crime,” Smith said proudly, “It would be worth it.”
After the meeting was dismissed, Smith and Daniel were asked a few questions regarding improvements needed in the Sheriff’s department.
“It’s hard to understand by people on the outside looking in.” Smith answered. He went on to say, “Our officers start out with $10.83 an hour, while the police department starts out with three or four more dollars an hour.” He then spoke of the continued fight with the Sumter County Board of Commissioners.
“They say I have a five and half million dollar budget,” he said, explaining that  it takes a lot to run the department. “I save money. I don’t like to spend money.” He mentioned that the department is in need of thermal Imaging devices, of which the fire department has 10. “They wanted our best boat for three old thermal image devices,” he said.
Smith stated that Daniel helped write a grant for body cameras, and hasn’t written a grant since 2007. He went on to say that the grant for body cameras was presented to the board of commissioners and was not approved. When asked, why wasn’t it approved? He grinned, “They put it in their spam account… You will have to ask the board of commissioners that question.” When asked, if he had given up on getting the grant for body cameras, Smith answered, “I never give up.”
Daniel was asked how he would improve the department and why body camera grants had not been approved.
“It wasn’t really the Board of Commissioners fault,” he said, explaining the grant was applied for at the last minute and the financial officers for the Board of Commissioners was fairly newly employed. They weren’t familiar with the means of accessing and submitting the grant online. Daniel also explained that most grants are 50/50 matching grants and most of the time these type grants are more difficult to get approved by the commission.
Phillip went on to elaborate on the decline of morale of the department and his plans to increase morale with positive reinforcement and his determination of holding all accountable for their actions. He also stated that the neighborhood watch program is in need of improving, as is the DARE program.
“We have some great jailers. It’s the management that is the problem,” he said before adding, “However, some jailers bring in cell phones for inmates have gotten away with it. Also there also have been some instances of inmates destroying government property and not being held accountable.”
“When you have to paint and repair a cell every time a cell is emptied because of inmate abuse to government property. When you walk by and an inmate is tearing sheets and making curtains across his bunk…” he said, explaining how department has to spend funds on new sheets and extra supplies because of property destruction. “They are not being charged for destroying government property,” he said, adding that some jailers have been guilty of bringing  phones to inmates. “They should be reprimanded. Their certification should be taken away. He was allowed to resign and go work for someone else,” He said.
Daniel also spoke of an incident where an officer was going to warn someone, a suspect, that an officer was on his way to pick them up.
“Another law enforcement officer told another deputy that if he were to go pick up the suspect before the next day, then he would inform him that a Deputy was on the way,” Daniel said, explaining that the officer’s comments were reported and an internal investigation was conducted. Daniel claimed that the deputy has not been reprimanded and held accountable for his actions. He said, on the contrary, that the offending deputy was promoted shortly after the incident to the rank of Corporal.
“This was a liability to the department,” Daniel stated, adding, “He should have been held accountable, not promoted.” He concluded that there are many incidents of employees and inmates not being held accountable for their actions.
“No one is running a drug task force. The officers are parking on the side of the road to save money and not patrolling the neighborhoods. The patrol cars are in need of repair and replacement… Don’t you know, the criminal knows this is happening,” Daniel said, reflecting on a time when the department was told they would be furloughed.
“We asked the Sheriff, ‘If we cut back $25,000 on the budget, could we be not be furloughed.’ He told us to take it to the Board of Commissioners. He was supposed to take it before the commissioners,” said Daniel, explaining  that they did take it before the commissioners to find that Sheriff Smith had given the board permission to take $25,000 off the budget.
“They took it off the budget. He did not have to give them permission to take it off the budget, when the budget was already approved. They could not do it without his approval,” Daniel said, explaining that  he and his fellow officers just said, “OK, and looked at the Sheriff sitting in the commissioners meeting smiling and walked out the door.”
Daniel added he retired to run for Sheriff because he was tired of the department being treated unfairly. “My son works for the Sheriff’s office. You can ask anyone, I treat him the same as everyone else. You can be my friend, but when we are at work, we are there to do a job. After work is a different story. When I am at work, I am doing my job and that is protecting the community.”