Dwight Wood, Hall County's clerk of court for almost 24 years, has chosen not to seek re-election in the face of a controversy over his handling of passport fees.
Wood, 56, an employee of the clerk's office since 1975, has not commented publicly, but informed some other elected clerks of his decision by e-mail several weeks ago, said Barry Wilkes, a friend of Wood's who is clerk of court in South Georgia's Liberty County. The decision became official at the close of qualifying Friday.
"Hall County is losing one of the best clerks in the state of Georgia," said Wilkes, who has known Wood since both first ran for election in 1984.
Wood was criticized by some Hall County commission members and citizens after news reports revealed that he legally took $86,000 in passport acceptance fees as personal compensation in 2007 in addition to his annual salary of $122,000.
Under federal law, elected clerks of court in Georgia are allowed to keep the $25 fee for processing passport applications, which is optional. In 2006, Wood took home $48,000 from the fees.
Wood defended the practice by saying he was performing a service for the citizens and that his office had been flooded with applications in recent years with the growth in the local immigration population and changes in federal rules regarding passports.
After a March 30 article detailing the practice appeared in The Times, county commissioners passed a resolution that Wood should return at least $25,000 of the money to the county.
The county's attorney informed the board that the practice is consistent with state and federal law.
Wood did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
Wilkes said that Wood "unfortunately got caught up in a situation where he feels like it's time to retire. It was just an anomaly and he got caught up in it."
Wilkes, who said he has not spoken with Wood recently, said, "there's the letter of the law and then there's politics. In politics, people can take almost anything you do or don't do and use it against you. And I think Dwight is the kind of guy who doesn't like controversy, and that's what led to him bowing out."
Wilkes called his friend "a great negotiator, with a willingness to be conciliatory and make everybody happy, and in this case I think he wanted to avoid conflict."
Three people have qualified to run for the post, which has a current listed annual salary of $125,547. Passport fees are sure to become the top campaign topic in a political race that is unlikely to capture much attention from those outside the court system.
"That's going to be the resounding campaign theme," said Ashley Bell, a local attorney who is running for county commission and was publicly critical of Wood's practice following the news reports.
Bell, who is running against incumbent county commissioner Deborah Mack, said "campaign promises aren't going to be enough," and that the local government should set new policy on how the fees are handled.
Bell said despite the controversy, Wood should be appreciated for the good he's done during his six terms in office.
"We owe a great debt of gratitude to him for organizing the office and making it efficient and user-friendly," Bell said. "Hopefully this won't tarnish his reputation for all the good he did for the county."
Wood, a native of Gainesville, is a past president of the Georgia Superior Court Clerks Association and was named Superior Court Clerk of the Year in 2000. He was county officer of the year in 2001.