The five Republican candidates seeking to be Hall County’s next sheriff have differing ideas on how to improve employee morale at the agency.
But the topic kept coming up Tuesday at a forum sponsored by the South Hall Republican Club and held ahead of the July 31 election to replace Sheriff Steve Cronic.
At least three of the candidates — Gerald Couch, John Sisk and Jeff Strickland — said that dealing with employee morale would be one of their first acts as sheriff, if elected.
Couch, who retired from the Hall County Sheriff’s Office to become Gainesville’s assistant chief of police, said “unfair and unequal treatment” of employees was at the root of the agency’s morale problem — not money, which he said employees have “toughed” out for the last several years.
“You do that by leading by example with integrity, by empowering the employees in instituting a fair and equal promotional process and make sure that you compliment them when they do a good job. And if something does happen, you hold them accountable and you move on,” Couch said. “I’d like to see the morale of the deputies improved, because that improves their productivity. It’s all about public safety.”
Couch also mentioned a beefed-up community relations program.
John Sisk, who retired from the Gainesville Police Department but spent time in the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, said fixing the morale problem would need to start with implementing a fair promotional process, a “fair, progressive discipline” program, eliminating furloughs and beefing up the sheriff’s office retirement system.
“County deputies, they’ve lost 5 percent of their money on furloughs, they’ve lost their retirement — that hurts, especially at the income levels they’re at,” Sisk said. “Yes, they might survive, but it still hurts.”
Jeff Strickland, who retired last year as the agency’s chief deputy, said furloughs and the county’s decision to stop contributing to employee retirement funds were part of the agency’s morale issues.
He also said the current budget had been a hit.
Since the Hall County Board of Commissioners has eliminated nine of 12 furlough days in the current fiscal year’s budget, Strickland said part of those problems were “on the mend.”
But he said the agency needed to eliminate the other three, even if that meant reducing the number of employees. The former chief deputy said the agency could cut about 10 employees through attrition.
And while he said he wanted to work with the board of commissioners to get the rest of the county’s retirement contribution returned to employees, Strickland also proposed bringing in financial experts to help employees plan for retirement on their own “and not have to always lean on the county.”
But Chuck Hewett disputed that retirement benefits were as important to officers as their pay.
“These officers are young — they’re 25, 26, 27, 28 — they can’t feed their families,” Hewett said. “They’re not worried about the 2 percent you give them 15, 30 years from now. ... We give them a little bit of increase in pay, and we can worry about their retirement later, because right now, they’re diluting milk with water to feed their kids. That’s drastic.”
Hewett also said the next sheriff needs to build a chain of command that officers “respect and want to work for.”
Part of Hewett’s plans includes what he described as reducing administrative redundancies.
Jon P. Strickland, a veteran of the Georgia State Patrol, also mentioned leadership as an issue with morale.
He said employees want a new leader who they know “has got their back.”
“I think a lot of them want a fresh set of eyes on a situation,” he said, noting that he was the only candidate who had never been a part of the supervisory staff at the sheriff’s office.
Hewett and Jon P. Strickland were the only two candidates who didn’t specifically mention morale in their list of first activities in office.
Instead, Jon P. Strickland said he wants to expand the duties of the county’s gang task force, adding a drug interdiction unit on the interstate.
He said the expanded program would bring money into the agency’s budget and making it easier to replace patrol cars, which he said was a dire need.
“There’s a lot of drugs and money coming into our county that we’re not getting,” he said.
Hewett said two of his first actions in office would be to use social media websites and television to communicate with the public about “lookouts” the agency had for criminals or specific crimes.
Hewett also proposed a program that would have officers check on the elderly during their regular patrols, if requested to do so.