The five Democratic candidates running for Liberty County sheriff in the upcoming May 24 general primary election answered questions about law enforcement and community relations Tuesday evening during a political forum at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center.
Incumbent Steve Sikes faced challengers Rondy Bacon, Will Bowman, Lamar Cook and Elton Dudley.
Republican candidate Robert Brooks did not answer questions because the forum was designed for candidates who were contested in the primary election, said Graylan Quaterman, chairman of the Liberty County Joint Political Committee.
Brooks, who will appear unopposed on the May 24 GOP ballot and will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November, was given the opportunity to introduce himself to the audience at the end of the forum.
There will be another forum in October for candidates in contested races on the November general election ballot, Quarterman said.
Tuesday’s forum focused on a variety of topics, such as fostering inclusivity, fair treatment of people, evaluation of the Sheriff’s Office, youth criminal justice programs and the department’s budget.
Inclusivity and diversity
Cook, Hinesville’s fire chief, said that pushing for diversity in a department is a continual process.
"If I become sheriff, there has to be a mandatory diversity training," he said. "The sheriff’s department will have to create opportunities to get with everybody in the community. I’ve talked about a transparency team, and that’s getting people together before there is a crisis. … Diversity and inclusiveness is year-round. … You just can’t do it when you hire an employee. You’ve got to keep that employee learning every day."
Bacon, a deputy corrections officer with the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, said it is important to reach out to other agencies.
"I would get out more in the community, get with agencies and see what programs we can get together, and solve issues of what’s going on in the community," he said.
One question asked of all sheriff’s candidates was, "How will you foster an environment that ensures fair treatment of all people that are served by the Liberty County sheriff’s department? Please provide an example."
"You’re looking at it," said Bowman, a Georgia State Patrol trooper. "I will be the example. Everyone will have my way of thinking, my way of training, my way of doing things. I’ve always been a compassionate person my entire life. … They will have my philosophy, my watch words — integrity, honor, dedication — and you can’t have any of those without honor."
The word "compassion" was repeated throughout the forum, particularly by Bowman. He said officers need to have more compassion when interacting with people.
Dudley, a Pentecostal preacher and salesman, said he would hire officers proportionate to the population of minorities and whites in the community.
"I would hire people from out of the community, a cross-section of every race," he said. "Right now, what we have is a section of people that, more than others, works in the department and that presents problems later on with the community."
Sikes said one of the first things he considers when appointing leaders is whether the person has a relationship with Jesus.
"I found that in several of my officers that are in leadership positions. Our sheriff’s department is more diverse today than it ever has been in its history of its conception," he said. "I’m proud of our organization, our compassion for the citizens of this community. We’re a well diverse sheriff’s department; we speak many languages. So I’m pleased with what we have."
The Sheriff’s Office’s budget is around $8.5 million, Sikes said, and between 64 percent and 75 percent of the department’s revenue comes from housing inmates at the Liberty County Jail. Sikes said his department has come in under budget each year since he been sheriff.
"We’ve done that with more people and more cars," he said. "We tightened down the screws, we cut some corners where we could, but we have a better sheriff’s department — more highly equipped to date than it’s ever been, with more men on the road."
Cook said he likes to maintain a steady budget.
"I don’t like turning money back in, so I like to be precise on my budget," he said. "If I have to turn that money back in, that money could’ve been used somewhere else or possibly reduce our millage rate. Been creating a budget for 18 years, and it’s been steady. You don’t see that budget going up and down."
Bacon said, "The sheriff’s department — that’s a big budget and you’ll try to cut corners. So you’ll need to save your money as a sheriff. Mostly the money does come from the inmates."
Bowman said he managed many budgets during his military career, including one that was $600 million.
"The sheriff receives $1,200 a month to drive his (own) vehicle. I wouldn’t do that. I would let the county purchase me a vehicle," he said. "The chief deputy receives $950. That’s money right there we can put deputies on the road because we do need more officers on the road. The reason why I know that is because I work with them. I go on calls with them."
Dudley reviewed the budget after saying he jumped through hoops to find it.
"It’s too much fat. Who pays for this stuff? You do. They say a lot of money comes from inmates. How do you think the inmates get their money? From you — your relatives," he said. "They fork out money to make their loved ones happy while they’re locked up. I suggest we do some serious thinking about the budget."
The final question was: "What makes you distinct from the other candidates?"
Cook emphasized his diverse work experience.
"My record stands for itself. I’ve been where the rubber meets the road, and I’ve worked in administration," he said. "If we had a major disaster, who could meet every one of those spectrums — law enforcement, fire or EMS command?
Bowman talked about his experience of leading soldiers through combat and being a Georgia state trooper.
"For over 13 years, I have served this community. I have been out there with you," he said. "I have been with the deputies on the road. I met the rubber with the road. I have been in fights. I have done everything possible as a Georgia state trooper. … There’s nothing that I won’t do for this community."
Dudley said he can relate to the common man.
"The reason you will vote for me is because I am a common, ordinary ex-soldier," he said. "In other words, I’ve been through everything that a common person goes through. I worked in the jail system. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the crying eyes. I’ve seen the mental ill come through."
Sikes thinks he should be re-elected because of his leadership over the Sheriff’s Office.
"I run a sheriff’s department, not like this (positions his hand low to represent a low standard) but I run a sheriff’s department like this (positions his hand high). How can we serve you?" he said.
He described being with officers on drug busts and car wrecks and having to inform parents that their child died.
"There’s a lot more to this job than badges and bullets," Sikes said. "But I just want you to know that we have compassion, we have knowledge. I have 48,000 hours of experience as sheriff in Liberty County."
Bacon talked about being himself.
"I’m just Rondy Bacon. Been like this all my life. Born and raised here," he said. "I’ll do anything for anybody, give them the shirt off my back — that’s the type of person I am. I’m not trying to be something I ain’t. I’m just going to keep it real. I love people, help you out anyway I can. ... My door will always be open to anybody."
Liberty County Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovette (D) and challenger Matt Mattingly (R) also introduced themselves at the end of the forum. They are unopposed on their respective parties’ ballots in the May 24 primary but will face each other in the November general election.