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Sheriff's race offers a variety of candidates

POSTED: July 26, 2012 9:51 a.m.

No or some experience. Loads of experience. Each resume is different, but each of the five candidates say they have what it takes to become Hall County’s next sheriff.

In what has become one of the key races in the July 31 primary, Gerald Couch, Chuck Hewett, John Sisk, Jeff Strickland and Jon P. Strickland are vying to succeed Sheriff Steve Cronic, who served three four-year terms.

“I’m the only candidate that has either trained, worked, supervised or managed in every single area of the sheriff’s office,” Couch said.

“So, just having that knowledge base is essential to being in a position of leadership in that department: How to manage and govern a budget, knowing where the money is needed and what truly works and what doesn’t.”

Couch spent 30 years with the sheriff’s office before joining the Gainesville Police Department in April 2011. He resigned eight months later to “pursue other professional endeavors.”

Chuck Hewett said that what separates him from the other men is “I’m the only candidate with a college degree.”

“I think that’s important when you’re handling a $30 million budget,” he said. “I’m also the only candidate who has served his country in the military.”

Hewett was an officer in the U.S. Army from 1979-87. He was with the sheriff’s office for 18 years, retiring in 2011 as jail chief of security.

“I was the person they picked to be the supervisor of transitioning to the new jail from the old jail,” he said.

Sisk started his career in law enforcement with the sheriff’s office in 1978, but he spent the bulk of his 26-year career with the Gainesville police. Mixed in were nine years in private business management.

“I’ve spent 14 years between the city and county working major cases and investigations,” he said, adding that he has attended various career-related schools. “I’ve got a wide variety of experiences.”

Jeff Strickland spent his entire 28-year career with the sheriff’s office, retiring in 2011 as chief deputy.

“I have worked in all functional areas of the sheriff’s office and, without really intending to do so, have prepared myself (for sheriff),” he said.

He oversaw the SWAT and dive teams and the domestic violence task force, among other sheriff’s entities.

Jon P. Strickland started working for the Gainesville Police Department before he graduated from Gainesville High School in 1982. He worked at the department for about five years, then served in the Georgia State Patrol for 16 years.

“I’m the only one running who has never worked at the sheriff’s office,” he said. “I think people in today’s times are looking for a fresh set of eyes. ... I think people are looking for a new background, a fresh face.”

In a July 17 forum sponsored by the South Hall Republican Club, the general theme among the five candidates was how to improve employee morale at the agency.

Candidates revived that concern during interviews on Wednesday.

“I think the first goal when you go into the sheriff’s office is to assess the situation with the (employees) and look to them,” Jon P. Strickland said. “They’ve been fighting the good fight, they’ve been working through the furloughs, through whatever adversities they’ve had at work.”

He added: “You can say, ‘I’m here as your sheriff. I want you to know I have got your back.’”

Sisk said he believes the morale in the department “is terrible.”

“The election has partly to do with it, but you’ve always got the fact that (employees) haven’t had raises in over four years,” he said, also citing furloughs and cuts in retirement.

But there are other issues, such as discipline and promotions, Sisk said.

“They’ve got to get back to serving the people of Hall County,” he said. “That is the job — to serve and protect the people of Hall County.”

Couch said he believes the issues facing the sheriff’s office are “officer development and retention.”

“That’s paramount to our community safety,” he said. “If you have low morale, it leads to officer injury, slow response to the public when they call upon us. We’ve been losing officers at a rapid pace. A lot of experience is leaving this county.”

Jeff Strickland said he wants to work to remove remaining furlough days and reinstate retirement for employees, but his top priority for the department will be “continuing to fight very hard against drugs, gangs and illegal immigration.”

He said many people have told him their families have been affected by “illegal and prescription drug use, and that’s going to be a very high priority of mine.”

As far as gangs, “we have a pretty good handle on them right now, but there is always room for improvement.”

Hewett said a key priority of his is “organizing a burglary suppression unit that does its job.”

“We’re averaging 15-20 burglaries a week,” he said. The sheriff’s office “has let that fall by the wayside. We had one with six members and now it’s down to two or three.”


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