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Six candidates for Newton sheriff spar, share positions

COVINGTON - The six candidates for sheriff of Newton County who will face off in the July 15 primary stated their positions and took questions from an audience on hand to hear from them at Monday night's political forum at the courthouse.

Each candidate, all currently serving as law enforcement officers, gave a brief introduction of themselves, which revealed that only Chris Cowan of the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office is not a Newton County native.

Cowan, a Republican, said when he moved his family to Newton County in 1999, he wanted to get involved in the community, and he is interested in "protecting our way of life."

Democrat Gwen Hightower, the mother of four who has come up through the ranks in the NCSO, told the audience that one of her main concerns was to ensure there was adequate manpower available to maintain public safety.

Republican Bill Watterson said his main concerns include the areas of domestic violence, drugs, juvenile offenders and burglaries. His platform, he said, could be wrapped up in the phrase, "Protecting families."

Republican Marty Roberts said he has spent his law enforcement career with the Newton County Sheriff's Office and now serves as manager of the detention center. He said he purposely applied for that position, knowing it would give him vital information and experience needed to run for sheriff.

Ezell Brown revealed that he and his wife were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary the night of the debate and said he had spent 34 of those years with the NCSO. Brown supervises the sex offender registry and said when appointed to that position by Sheriff Joe Nichols, he "took it as an honor and privilege." He said he was "young enough to grow, but old enough to know."

Stacey Cotton, who has served as chief of police for the Covington Police Department since 1997, said he believes he has the proven professionalism, education and training to "take it to the next level," and serve all Newton residents every day.

Sex offender notification

A question was raised about the duty of the sheriff's office to do more to notify customers of two Alcovy Road pay-by-the-week hotels that a number of sex offenders reside at those establishments.

Roberts said public notification is being given to residents on who sex offenders are and where they live, but said law enforcement could only work within the guidelines of the law.

"The people on that list (sex offender registry) are represented by the same laws we have to enforce for everyone else. We may not agree with it, but we have to enforce the laws."

Brown said Newton County has one of the finest reporting systems in the state, and as those offenders were all in one location, he was assured that "At all times I have my finger on that sex offender." He said he could see that sex offenders are following all rules, but if they disappeared from law enforcement radar, the situation would be more dangerous.

Cotton said he would entertain the idea of researching how other agencies keep tabs of sex offenders and learn from that, saying he would "always champion the cause of children."

Hightower pointed out that not only was the sex offender registry printed in local newspapers, it could be accessed through the Newton County sheriff's Web site and there was a booklet at City Hall and the CPD with that information.

Watterson said he'd like to put a sign up at the two hotels to warn parents, but pointed out that business owners had rights and he would try to come up with some sort of compromise with those hotel owners about notifying their guests.

Cowan said he would have to look both at the rights of the business owner, as well as the issue of public safety. He said residents had a responsibility to monitor their surroundings.

EMDET

Resident Randy Upton questioned the wisdom of disbanding the East Metro Drug Enforcement Team in 2005. EMDET was partially funded through federal funds and Upton cited the Hatch Act, which prohibits anyone who receives federal funds to seek office. He also asked if EMDET would be reinstated, if federal funds would be sought and if any of the candidates had ever lost track of funds in their care.

All candidates said they had never lost any money entrusted to them through their profession.

Hightower, Watterson, Cowan, Roberts and Brown all said they would seek federal funds to fight drugs, whether through EMDET or the Special Investigations Unit, composed of agents from the NCSO and the CPD.

Cotton said the decision to disband EMDET was made by the entire board composed of the highest law enforcement officials in Newton and Rockdale counties. He was chairman of that board at the time and did not have a vote in the decision, but said it was done due to dwindling federal funds. Also, he pointed out those funds had come with strings attached - meaning they could only be used to investigate drug cases and none of the crimes that are typically off-shoots of the drug problem.

All of the candidates said they were not in violation of the Hatch Act by seeking public office.

Plan for the future

A resident asked the candidates to expound on their plans for the future as crime seems to be on the upswing. He wanted to know if they had a plan in their back pocket to "hit the ground" when they assumed office. Candidates responded to that last question as well as giving their closing remarks.

Roberts said he couldn't honestly say he had a plan to combat all areas of crime, but he would seek "the best solution" for each problem. He said he wanted to establish a citizens' review board to include all aspects of the citizenry and work within the "financial realities." He said he would go to other municipalities and learn from their experience.

"I'll do whatever it takes to do it," he pledged.

Brown said he did have a plan to address what he called "the big three - drugs, sex and violence." He recommended a mapping program called "Cop on the Dot," which would reveal high crime areas in the county so officers could be assigned accordingly. He said he would create new and revitalize old community watch programs and meet with residents and community leaders to discuss problems and have structures put in place to address them.

Cotton said if he didn't have a plan, he wouldn't be running for office. He said he would initially see what assets were available internally in the department through personnel and make sure the right people are in place and sufficiently trained to do their assigned tasks; he would make sure technology is up-to-date; he would see what could be done in conjunction with other government agencies, such as the board of commissioners, Juvenile Court, the school system and DFACS; and he would work with charitable groups - "people who care enough to make this a better place," citing his own work with Project ReNeWal and a new Child Advocacy Center.

Watterson said despite population growth in the county, the sheriff's department budget has not kept pace. "One of the first jobs is to look at this budget," he said, adding that he would like to see precincts added, more training for personnel and a concentration on fighting drugs.

Hightower said as a 24-year-veteran of the department, she's seen it progress and she believes progress can continue through new ideas and an increase in personnel. She said she would establish precincts, a criminal justice apprentice program and establish a recruiting officer.

Cowan admitted no one had a magic solution to crime, but he said he would have an open-door policy and would reach out to churches and others to establish a solid base for fighting crime.

"It will take a concentrated effort of everyone together to put a solution into effect," he said, adding that it was important for communication to be open and for citizens to assist law enforcement officials. "You are the eyes and ears. ... We need your feedback," he said.

He said prevention of domestic violence was a high priority and promised to work very hard as sheriff. "I take it very personal and serious," he said.

Managing Editor Colin Stewart contributed to this story.