Legislation introduced and bills on the way in the General Assembly would allow Glynn County voters to drop the hammer on the Glynn County Police Department, coming in the aftermath of a professional misconduct scandal that already put the kibosh on the Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team.

The bills are an outgrowth of the burgeoning conflict between state and county officials on how to deal with county law enforcement in the wake of that wrongdoing.

While the law would apply statewide, the legislation has a clear target in the GCPD.

“What the general bill does, and the general bill must pass, it would create a process to dissolve a (county) police department and give (county) law enforcement back to the sheriff,” said state Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak.

The bill

Ligon’s legislation, Senate Bill 317, did not yet have a companion bill in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, but state Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, said he was preparing to drop one.

“The law is that you can allow voters to, through local legislation, put in a police department, but not that you can allow voters to abolish one,” Hogan said. “I got a house bill that’s just about finished. I’m going to try to pick it up this afternoon and get some signatures on it and drop it (Thursday).”

Getting the proposal through the General Assembly is a two-part process. There’s a regular bill, which S.B. 317 represents, and a local bill which would put the matter on the ballot for county residents.

“This is not a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote,” Ligon said. “This is general legislation, which requires a majority vote of the House and Senate.”

If the bill gets through General Assembly, legislators would follow up with a piece of local legislation to put the matter to a public vote and then to enact the result of the vote.

If it doesn’t pass, a local bill specifically to ask Glynn County citizens whether or not they wanted to dissolve the police department would not be proper, Ligon said, as no mechanism would exist to allow the state to dissolve local law enforcement agencies.

The House bill will also include a sunset clause, Hogan said. It will cease to be effective on July 1, 2021, as currently written.

A common refrain from legislators discussing legislation is, “This is a simple bill.” In fact, S.B. 317 is fairly simple in it is one page long, covering 24 lines. The purpose goes thusly — after the creation of a county police department, that department can be dissolved through either a local act of the General Assembly or a resolution of the governing authority of that county.

Those actions could only occur, however, after county voters approved a referendum backing such an action. If the voters approved a referendum and the county government or General Assembly then passed their respective resolution or act, the county police department would have to cease operations within 180 days, at such time all property, documents and the like would go to the county sheriff.

The politics

In addition to Ligon, S.B. 317 is the sort of legislation that at first glance would appear to be on track to pass the Senate on names alone. Co-sponsors of the bill include Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, Senate Majority Whip Steve Gooch and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, the most powerful people in the chamber not including the lieutenant governor.

On first reading Wednesday the legislation received the assignment of the Senate Government Oversight Committee, which by coincidence meets today. Gooch, R-Dahlonega, and Miller, R-Gainesville, are ex-officio members of the committee.

The committee’s agenda, at first, only listed one matter for consideration — Senate Resolution 364, a constitutional amendment limiting the lieutenant governor to two consecutive terms. However, the committee released an updated agenda Wednesday evening placing Ligon’s bill up for debate.

The catalyst

A report from a Glynn County grand jury is what set Hogan and Ligon on this path, but state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, said he isn’t convinced it’s appropriate for the state to take direct action.

“In part, this issue with GCPD concerns me in that clearly only one side of the story has really been brought to the public’s full attention,” Jones said. “By that I mean, when the (Brunswick Judicial Circuit) District Attorney made the presentation to the grand jury, neither the chief of police nor the county commissioners were invited to participate in the inquiry.”

The presentment, issued in September by an outgoing Glynn County grand jury, gave the details of an investigation into allegations of impropriety between county officers and informants.

“We didn’t go looking for this. This was given to us by the grand jury,” Ligon said.

In the report, the grand jury made several recommendations, most of them suggesting changes within the county police department’s procedures. It also recommended giving voters the chance to decide whether or not to dissolve the police department.

“I don’t know that we can ignore the grand jury and their recommendations,” Hogan said. “When we met with the grand jury, it was made up of some substantial and fine people in the community who looked into this thoroughly.”

Hogan and Ligon reiterated the reasons for their decision in an op-ed provided to local news agencies on Tuesday.

“Rep. Don Hogan and I believe that the grand jury’s report revealed numerous concerns over certain policies within the police department,” the letter states. “Of particular concern, the grand jury reported that ‘during a (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) investigation at least one Glynn County police supervisor refused to be interviewed by the GBI and later testified that he would encourage others not to cooperate with the GBI.’ The grand jury also stated, ‘That supervisor was not disciplined and continues in this position.’”

The supervisor in question, former Lt. David Haney, has since retired from the GCPD.

Hogan and Ligon recognized in the letter that the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “would prohibit the conditioning of a police officer’s continued employment on his cooperation with a criminal investigation,” but wrote that a “truly independent internal affairs investigation” would allow the department to terminate, suspend or reassign officers based on information uncovered or who do not cooperate with the investigation.

“Law enforcement agencies carry a tremendous amount of responsibility,” the letter continued. “We trust them to enforce our laws and give them the authority to use force when necessary. Such agencies play a vital role in a society governed by the rule of law.

“The combined failure of a police supervisor encouraging other officers not to cooperate with investigations conducted by the GBI and not having a process for truly independent internal affairs investigations does not promote the public trust.”

While a sheriff could run his office exactly like a police department, the letter states that a sheriff “would have to keep in mind that he is directly accountable to the voters.”

The commissioners

County officials say the grand jury report was based on incomplete, incorrect or out-of-date information, and that no county or police department officials were allowed to rebut information prosecutors presented to the grand jury.

“The grand jury heard exactly what (District Attorney) Jackie Johnson wanted them to hear,” Glynn County Commission Chairman Mike Browning said to The News earlier this month. “You can print that. They heard what she wanted them to hear. The state delegation was brought in. No one from the county commission was brought in. No one. We were completely blindsided.”

In an official response released in November, Glynn County Manager Alan Ours noted that the county had the International Association of Chiefs of Police perform an analysis of the GCPD’s policies and operations.

Many of the same recommendations could be found in both the IACP report and the grand jury presentment.

“We had an IACP report done a year ago, an audit,” commissioner Bill Brunson said Wednesday. “Before that report was finished, (Police) Chief (John) Powell was already instituting many, many changes in the way the police department does business.

“And then when the (grand jury) report came, he’s addressing every single issue in this report. It’s almost like none of that ever happened. Like they think the (county commission) is looking out into space ignoring what’s going on in the police department. That’s just not based in fact.”

Most commissioners were not necessarily against acting on the grand jury’s recommendation to poll the public on whether or not it wanted to keep the police department and Glynn County Sheriff’s Office separate but felt that the issue should be handled in a more thoughtful manner than what state legislators wish to do.

If the state legislature goes through with it, most commissioners believed it would also be a violation of the home rule statute.

Home rule, as laid out in the state constitution, allows counties and cities to pass any “clearly reasonable” local ordinances as long as they don’t conflict with state law or the state constitution.

“I think this goes above the city and the county,” Hogan said.

Because the voters get to make the call, it isn’t a violation of the home rule principle he said.

“As long as the voters have a chance to vote, I don’t think there’s a home rule issue. I know some county commissioner think there’s one,” Hogan said.

Many county officials see it as a circumvention of the local government’s authority, however, including Jones.

“This is clearly a home rule issue,” Jones said.

Conflicting opinions

Calling the proposed legislation controversial would not be unfounded. Not only has it split local and state officials, but it’s also split the Golden Isles’ state delegation.

“Our cities and our counties do not want to open the door to letting the General Assembly begin interfering and dictating what are clearly home-rule responsibility,” Jones said. “To do so creates a dangerous, open-ended precedent that we would not be able to retreat from.”

While Ligon and Hogan are pushing for the legislation, Jones doesn’t see it as necessary.

“We’ve talked about it a little bit, and I just think that Rep. Jones has a difference of opinion,” Ligon said. “I’ve explained my concerns, and he may have different concerns. It’s just maybe a difference of opinion or perspective.”

Jones voiced his opposition earlier this month, and again this week in an interview and in an email to the General Assembly’s legal counsel requesting an opinion on the constitutionality of the bills and proposed local legislation.

“I am concerned about the way this is moving forward, and I felt it was important to get a legal opinion about this legislation that is proposed by Rep. Hogan and Sen. Ligon,” Jones said. “I believe we are entering into potentially dangerous territory when we start putting items or areas of community responsibility that are clearly outlined and dictated by the Georgia Constitution up for a public popularity poll.”

Future of county law enforcement

Most, but not all, local officials feel similarly.

“I think that they’re trying to move to consolidate the city into the county and thereby completely eliminating the African-American voting power in the city,” Commissioner Allen Booker said. “I think that’s their goal with this.”

He sees merging the GCPD and sheriff’s office as the first step in consolidating all law enforcement in Glynn County under the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office, which would then strengthen the case to consolidate all city and county government.

“One word in the legislation needs to be changed to do the same thing to the city police department if this passes with the county,” Booker said. “It’s a power play for folks who want all law enforcement under the sheriff. While I think Neal Jump is a good person, and I told him this, if he was going to live forever I would support this. But he’s not going to live forever.”

None of the commissioners had anything bad to say about Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump, but they, like Booker, feared what might happen under another sheriff.

“Whether it’s put under Sheriff Jump is irrelevant,” Brunson said. “I have no issues with Neal Jump, but tell me who’s going to be the sheriff next year? Who’s going to be the sheriff in 2025?”

He said sheriffs are rarely defeated by challengers in a public vote, but that county commissioners can take direct action to hold a police chief accountable.

“If they’re happy with the way something’s run, vote us out of office and elect people that you agree with,” Brunson said. “If we do away with home rule then we’ve got a real problem.”

Commissioner Peter Murphy called the legislation “a huge, troubling move,” and an “ultimate sign of disrespect” in the county’s ability to handle local issues.

He recalled the first meeting local officials had with state legislators about what they wanted to do, saying the meeting only happened because Browning heard a rumor.

“They completely jumped the chain of command and tried to say because of what the grand jury did in that closed session — which apparently they were invited to attend and none of the county commissioners were invited to attend — they have taken what the grand jury said and used it to supersede Glynn County,” Murphy said. “I think that’s an egregious sign of disrespect to us and to our capacity to take care of issues here in Glynn County.”

Commissioner David O’Quinn wanted to stay largely neutral on the matter, instead decided to focus his attention on improving the quality of law enforcement in the county.

“It does not help to have Glynn County at odds over this situation. I think everybody wants to see improvement, and that’s what I’m going to work toward,” O’Quinn said. “The bill has been dropped. We have to deal with the consequences from here, and I think that’s what we need to focus on.”

Whatever happens, he said the county commission will have to deal with it.

Of all the county commissioners The News spoke with Wednesday — Commissioner Wayne Neal could not be reached for comment — only Commissioner Bob Coleman was overtly in favor of the legislation.

“I think the question everybody has really put into this conversation is ‘Should the voters be involved in saying yay or nay on it?’ ... I don’t have anything against these people who pay the taxes and get the services from these departments having all the say in the world,” Coleman said.

He said he sees pros and cons in both options, but would prefer to put all the facts before the public and let taxpayers decide.

“For as long as I’ve been down there, it’s always been a knock-down, drag-out between the two departments,” Coleman said. “I think we just need to back up and regroup and the people have a say.”

Merging GCPD and the sheriff’s office has long been a bone of contention, Coleman said. He’s seen the discussion come and go.

Rather than continuing to fight over it, he said the commission should conduct surveys of the two departments and determine the least expensive way to maintain the services they provide.

Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey said the city would oppose the legislation.

He was not totally against the idea of putting the question to a public vote but felt the state legislature would be overstepping its bounds by forcing the issue.

“I believe this is a fight with home rule and goes against home rule, and I feel that the county commission should be given the opportunity to correct issues,” Harvey said.

If this piece of legislation passes, Harvey said he didn’t think it would stop there. Like Booker, he felt it would be a foot in the door for those pushing to consolidate city and county governments.

“I think it’s usurping really, if you ask me,” Harvey said.

Browning said Wednesday he was told the Senate Government Oversight Committee would hold a hearing today and that he planned to drive to Atlanta to attend it.

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