Liberty County welcomed new and returning leaders to their offices Thursday, but the joyous occasion for some was overshadowed by the fact that there were two ceremonies — and whether intentional or not, they were divided by race and gender.
State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, called the Courier on Friday to express his anger over seeing a front-page photograph of four officials who’d been sworn-in on the steps of the Liberty County Justice Center hours before the official ceremony was supposed to be held.
“I saw a swearing-in there where all the white officials are standing there,” he said. “Now whether it was intentional or not, the perception is that there were two swearing-ins, and I’ve gotten so many calls today.”
He said more than 20 constituents — including supporters of Sheriff Steve Sikes, Superior Court Clerk Barry Wilkes, District 4 Commissioner Pat Bowen and District 6 Commissioner Eddie Walden — called to voice their frustration and disappointment.
“My thing is, I supported everybody I see on that front cover today. I supported them because I trust that they’re good people,” he said. “When I see this, it sends a bad message — I’m embarrassed as state representative from this county.
“I’ve spent so much time seeing white proms and black proms at high schools throughout this state, and here we are in 2012 — in what I consider one of the most progressive counties in Georgia — to send this message, I am so disappointed.”
Williams said he did notice an absence of primarily white elected officials at the nighttime ceremony and heard excuses for their absences. But Williams said the Courier’s coverage of the event implied that there were two deliberately divided ceremonies.
The Courier knew about the 6 p.m. ceremony but was notified late Wednesday afternoon that there was to be a ceremony Thursday morning.
On Thursday, Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes explained that he previously had committed to attending a fellow sheriff’s induction ceremony in a neighboring county and asked to take his oath in advance in case he was not able to return by 6 p.m.
While the sheriff could not be reached for comment on this story, he was present at the evening ceremony and sat in the audience.
Liberty County Clerk of Superior Court Barry Wilkes said Friday that he made a logistics-based decision when he heard there was to be an earlier ceremony.
He apologized that people feel there was a racial divide and said one was not intended.
“I’ve done this for 28 years and, to me, being sworn in is not a big deal, and ultimately, it was not intended to have a (split) ceremony or anything, we just had a lot going on …,” Wilkes said. “Nobody plotted, planned or tried to create two ceremonies.”
Wilkes explained that his office is inundated with audits and annual close-outs compounded with several employees on leave this time of year, and he wanted to take the quickest route to getting back to business.
“People that know me, they know that to me, it’s all about the work, and I don’t get involved in pomp and circumstance, and ultimately, when I found out there was a swearing-in to be yesterday morning, it fit into my schedule,” Wilkes said.
He pointed out that several judges were sworn-in earlier in the month as well.
Williams also noted that it is disrespectful for the two commissioners who took their oaths of office in the earlier ceremony to not support new incoming chairman Donald Lovette.
Lovette, when asked whether he thought the men acted disrespectfully, said he would prefer not to comment but said he also has received about four calls about the matter.
Was he disappointed by the lack of appearance?
“I was caught up in enjoying the evening that we had planned and worked so hard for, so the answer is no, I was determined to enjoy the evening, and we did,” Lovette said. “I think yesterday evening spoke for itself, and I’ve received accolades since that time —I don’t want to see the county divided in the former fashion. I don’t want to feed into that; people had conflicts, so they opted to be sworn in earlier.”
Lovette said he previously knew that Probate Judge Nancy Aspinwall and Solicitor General Jeffery Osteen had been sworn in, but he found out Thursday about his fellow commissioners.
While Lovette said he did not necessarily see the issue as a race-related one, he said the other officers could have better communicated their plans.
“It would have been nice for those who arranged the swearing-in to have informed the others of us that there was going to be a separate ceremony,” Lovette said.
Walden said he, Bowen and District 5 Commissioner Gary Gilliard initially planned to take their oaths at the justice center in advance of the planned event, but Gilliard said at the Dec. 20 BoC meeting that he had invited people to attend the nighttime ceremony.
“My ceremony was actually going to be last week. I had planned to go to Nashville to see my son over the holidays. Commissioner Gilliard, myself and Commissioner Bowen, we were just going to go up there and get sworn in,” Walden said. His planned trip to Nashville has changed.
“I said, hey, ‘Let them folks have all the fanfare,’ I’m not into all that,” the commissioner, now in his fourth term, said. “I don’t believe it was a planned thing, you know, I just wanted to get mine done and get it over with.”
Walden said he and his wife were en route to Aspinwall’s office when a clerk told them the probate judge was headed downstairs to swear in the sheriff.
“It wasn’t a big deal to me. I’ve been sworn in before, but as far as a racial divide, I think that’s pretty far-fetched … I didn’t think anything about it. I’m not a racial person, I was just doing something to meet my schedule,” Walden said.
“It wasn’t deliberate on my part,” Bowen said. “I tell you the reason I went up there, my wife was going out of town, I had a house full of young-ins, and I was just tied up.”
The fifth-term commissioner said he and Walden spoke in advance about seeing Aspinwall at the same time.
“Talking to somebody between that night, Wednesday night, they said, ‘Well, I think they have a swearing-in ceremony for Sheriff Sikes or Barry Wilkes,’ and I said, ‘That will work out well, we can do it all at once,’” Bowen said.
“There’s nothing racial about it. I had six, seven grandkids here today and yesterday for the holidays. I was just tied up,” Bowen said. “Nothing ugly — if they want to — there was nothing racial intended.”
Neither Gilliard nor County Administrator Joey Brown could be reached for comment by press time.