Morale appears to be on the upswing at the Gainesville Police Department in the week since Chief Brian Kelly resigned, according to sources inside the force.
The change in command, which followed an inquiry by city management that revealed widespread concerns within the department about Kelly’s leadership, has breathed new life into officers.
But challenges remain as the department works to address other issues, such as pay, its relationship with the community it serves and, like other areas of government, budgetary constraints.
Describing Kelly’s ouster as bittersweet, Maj. Carol Martin, the interim chief, said it’s time to move forward.
"The city is looking to change," she said.
In an interview with The Times on Thursday, Martin said she hopes to open up the lines of communication between officers and management, as well as improve relations with residents by hosting and attending more community events.
"They need us," she said. "We need them even more."
Permanently filling the chief’s role is a top priority for city officials, who said Martin will be given about six months in the leadership post.
Mayor Danny Dunagan said the city would like to hire a new chief from within the police department, and it is possible Martin might be promoted.
But she’s not focused on that right now.
"I’m focused on the present," she said. "I don’t know what the future holds."
Councilman Sam Couvillon, however, said whether the city hires from within or outside the police department, it is imperative to find the right candidate so the problems don’t continue.
Several names have emerged in recent days as possible candidates for the chief’s job.
Capt. Chad White, currently serving as the No. 2 in command, is a possibility, for example.
There’s also the case of Maj. Paul Sherman, who retired in January after a long-running dispute with Kelly over differences in management style.
However, Sherman, who retains some support within the police department, said he has no interest in returning to the department at this time.
There have also been calls for an African-American or Hispanic/Latino to fill the top role.
In the aftermath of Kelly’s ouster, talk has resumed about the possibility of consolidating the Gainesville Police Department and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
Proponents of the idea say it will cut costs, reduce overlap and improve services, pointing to the recent merger of the Macon Police Department with the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office as a prime example.
"I think it can be cost-effective," Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said. "It also could decrease duplicate efforts."
Couch said that with a larger pool of officers, more consistent enforcement and training would result from consolidation, as would better record-keeping.
County officials tend to be on board with the idea, taking it even a step further to include fire departments, and perhaps all of local government, though these include other obstacles.
"For my mind, the ultimate goal is to do what Macon-Bibb County did, Athens-Clarke County" said Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum said the Gainesville police force already relies on the sheriff’s office for SWAT and dispatch.
A consolidated force could potentially move the sheriff’s office into a role where it oversees courts, jails and warrants, while a countywide police force is in place to handle patrols, calls for service and other responsibilities. While county officials appear keen on the idea, city officials are more skeptical, hesitant to jump on board for fear of unintended consequences.
"... Our track record with consolidation ... is just not very good," said Councilman George Wangemann, adding that previous attempts to merge inspections and code enforcement proved futile. "It just did not work out. The county is still quite a different animal than we are."
Dunagan said he would be open to discussing the idea with county officials, but he is concerned that consolidation might hurt response times and service levels for Gainesville residents.
Moreover, city officials fear the loss of influence that might come with a merger.
"It would not be turned over totally to the sheriff’s office," Dunagan said.
Another impediment to consolidation is the relationship between the city and county, which often find themselves in adversarial positions.
Gainesville and Hall County have sparred in recent years over the distribution of sales tax revenue, annexations of "island" properties and, recently, in regard to the county’s plans to open a health clinic and pharmacy for employees.
"The elected officials have to work this out along with the citizens," Martin said. "No matter what, we’ll provide the best service."