A familiar fight is unfolding in Twiggs County, where Sheriff Darren Mitchum and Greg Stone once again face off for the county's top law enforcement job.
The two last met in 2004, when Mitchum by a slim margin defeated Stone, whose father had just stepped down as sheriff after nearly two decades in office. Stone was a deputy in his father's department at the time.
There were four other Democratic candidates that year, which pushed the race into a hard-fought runoff. This time around, only one other person, political newcomer Harold Etheridge, has joined Stone and Mitchum in the contest. There are no Republicans in the race, so the July 15 primary winner has a virtual lock on the post.
With a first-term sheriff vying to stay in power against an entrenched political family, this election should give residents a pretty clear choice: They can stick with the more aggressive policing style Mitchum has introduced, or, as Stone and Etheridge advocate, return to more a laid-back law enforcement the candidates said existed previously.
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Mitchum's victory four years ago brought significant changes to the office. A department of fewer than 10 deputies was expanded to nearly two dozen. Investigators were added to the staff. Interstate patrols were beefed up. A program aimed at educating youngsters about the dangers of drugs was introduced to the school system.
Spending increased with the expansion. According to audited budget figures Mitchum provided, the sheriff's office on average spent $1.23 million annually from 2001 to 2004. Numbers from the first two years of Mitchum's term, the most recent available, show average yearly spending grew to $1.69 million.
Evidence of criminal activity shot through the roof, according to records Mitchum provided. During the first two and half years of his term, arrests for criminal offenses rose by 80 percent over the previous four years. Traffic and alcohol related offenses grew by 254 percent.
But the stats have ballooned, Mitchum said, not because there's more crime but because he's making arrests that weren't being made before.
"In my opinion, you can have two different things. You can either have a reactive sheriff's office, that basically, if you call they'll come and clean up the mess. If you're reactive, it's always pretty much an after-the-fact thing," he said. "But if you're proactive and you're out there and you're visible and you're looking and you're actually working and doing what you're paid to do, by being proactive you can actually prevent crime before it happens."
But Stone and Etheridge both argue that Mitchum's style has hardened into a less flexible approach to law enforcement than they like. They also say the department has evolved into an impersonal bureaucracy with a bloated budget.
Neither one is happy that deputies who live outside Twiggs - Mitchum said there are about four - take their county cars home every day, given the high gas prices. And there are little things residents don't like, they said, such as having to give their name to the secretary when calling the sheriff or not being able to see deputies through their dark-tinted car windows.
Stone, who now owns a trucking company and co-owns a septic tank service company with his father, said he would cut back on expenses if elected. He accuses Mitchum of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more than what county commissioners approve each year at budget time. (Mitchum said when fines and other fees generated by law enforcement are counted, his office actually spends hundreds of thousands of dollars under the budgeted amount.)
Stone said the department has three times as many deputies as other similarly sized counties, which he said "speaks volumes." At the same time, he said he could not say what the proper number should be, though he expects that if he's elected he would need more than his father employed. Stone said he also wants to place deputies in substations in Danville and and Dry Branch.
Stone said he can provide quality law enforcement while keeping an eye on spending and remaining personable.
"Not everybody that is pulled over in the county of Twiggs deserves a citation. Not everybody that, a squad car pulls up in your yard, deserves to go to jail," he said. "In my opinion, the sheriff's office has gotten away from the old philosophy of 'to serve and protect,' and have gotten to what in my opinion is 'how deep is your pockets?' It's all about the dollar. It's all about the dollar and statistics. Statistics don't mean anything to me."
Etheridge, a self-taught mechanic and volunteer firefighter who lives near Dry Branch, has no previous law enforcement experience. But in talking to customers, whose cars he works on at the shop behind his home, he said he began hearing complaints about deputies acting unfriendly to residents or writing tickets for trivial offenses.
"After you hear enough people talk about 'this ain't done right, that ain't done right,' ... you kind of get the feeling, 'Maybe I need to stand up and try to make the change,' " he said. Etheridge concedes there would be a steep learning curve if he's elected, but he said he's ready to shut down his business and devote his full attention to the sheriff's office and training for the job.
"I read a lot, I study a lot, I ask a lot of questions," he said.
A HISTORY OF NASTY RACES
With three men in the race, the likelihood of a runoff is increased. History suggests that before the end is reached, the race will get dirty as well.
Shortly before the 2004 election, Stone said he was attacked by a smear campaign when newspaper accounts of his 1995 firing from the Macon Police Department were passed around the county. Stone's termination followed a drug case he was involved in where $5,000 in seized cash was mishandled and some of it unaccounted for.
His law enforcement certification was suspended for three months, and he was placed on two years' probation by the Georgia Peace Officers Standards Council. No criminal charges were filed, and by the next year Stone was employed again in his father's department.
As a deputy in 2002, he and a female Jeffersonville police officer were charged with fighting. Criminal charges against Stone were later dropped, and the police officer was acquitted following trial. Police Officer Standards and Training initially recommended that Stone's certification be terminated, but the case eventually was dropped.
Stone says Twiggs residents are well versed in his past and are not bothered by it. Those who are concerned about it simply need an excuse not to vote for him, he said.
"I've grown up, I have matured a lot since '94 or '95. There's a lot of things that I think I've matured on. I'm on a different level now," he said. "There's nobody that can sit there and say they ain't never violated a policy. The reason why mine was brought up, made public, because I'm a victim of - my father was in public service, politics. ... 'Cause I was the son of Sheriff Doyle Stone. Had I not been the son of the sheriff, you would have never heard about me violating those policies."
Four years ago, Mitchum said he also was targeted by dirty campaign tactics when copies of a booking report were placed on cars and mailboxes. Mitchum had turned himself in on a misdemeanor charge of simple assault in March 2000 after a woman - who he said he had never met or seen before - claimed he had shaken his fist and verbally threatened her.
A Twiggs magistrate judge dismissed the charge as unfounded a few days after Mitchum's arrest.
Mitchum said he later discovered the woman was the ex-wife of a man who worked for his father. Involved in a custody battle with her ex-husband, Mitchum said, she had requested the warrant after Mitchum and his family encountered a man she had hired as a private investigator.
The apparent investigator followed Mitchum, his parents, wife and children one night on their way from Twiggs County to Macon for dinner, the sheriff said, driving erratically and attempting to run them off the road. He said just before leaving Twiggs, they ran into the ex-husband at a gas station and stopped to talk to him. They noticed the investigator in the parking lot before he took off.
Mitchum, who at the time was assistant police chief in Gray, said he reported the incident to Macon police that same night. A few weeks later, the Twiggs sheriff office called to tell him a woman had sworn out a warrant against him. Mitchum said the man she had hired had tried the same thing in Bibb County but the judge dismissed the effort.
At Mitchum's request, POST also investigated the incident. The council took no action and closed the case, according to a letter sent to Mitchum.
Mitchum said although the experience was "traumatic" for him and his family, he doesn't expect it to affect the election.
"I think folks got sense enough to read between the lines there," he said, adding that he has nothing to keep from the public. "Anybody that wants to see or wants to hear, come look."
To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.