John Darr has been the sheriff of Muscogee County for more than six years.
A career deputy, Darr went from sergeant to sheriff when he unseated his boss, Sheriff Ralph Johnson, in 2008. He led the effort to get the jail out from under a federal court order that mandated how it was to be operated.
But at times, his tenure has been rocky. He was sued in federal court by three female deputies for gender discrimination in the hiring process. The end result of that suit was U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land ordering one of those deputies promoted to captain.
Currently, Darr is one of four elected officials suing the city of Columbus over funding issues. That suit has put Darr in conflict with Mayor Teresa Tomlinson. With that as a backdrop, Darr sat down with reporter Chuck Williams recently to discuss many of those issues.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
Has this job turned out to be more difficult or less difficult than you thought?
If you had to pick the two, I think it has been difficult, the job itself. ... I have had the luxury of working in a number of different areas of the sheriff's office, everywhere but basically the training division. ... I knew it when I ran for sheriff, and I kind of knew some of the things I wanted to do, like anybody, if I were elected sheriff -- things I wanted to change and do a little bit different in a different direction.
When you say different direction, what do you mean?
One of the bigger things is, I thought as the sheriff's office we needed to do a better job of being more transparent to the public of any incident that occurs in the sheriff's office, and I think we needed to do a better job of basically building relationships, bridges, to those in the community -- different groups, individuals, citizens, different organizations -- and that's important, especially nowadays with what's going on throughout the United States and throughout this country. If the public doesn't have trust in your agency, you're going to face a tough uphill battle in a lot of things.
Do you think the public trusts the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office?
Why do you say that?
Because that's the feel you get when you talk to people out here in the community. If you talk to different groups in the community, I'll think you get that. There's no doubt about it in my mind.
You spent 20 years as sergeant.
I was a deputy and then promoted to sergeant, and I was a sergeant when I ran for sheriff.
Did the 20 years you spent in the office prepare you to be the sheriff?
Yes and no. Yes from the working knowledge of the sheriff's office itself, because going back to the question, I had the opportunity to work in every area, from the county jail as a jailer, came to the street as a deputy learning the civil process, which is the big backbone or one of the big areas. And then go back as a supervisor as a sergeant at the county jail.
So, the 20 years prepared me for the sheriff's office itself. The 20 years did not prepare me for what I would say (are) the politics of the office. And a lot of times that's what it is, dealing with city council, the mayors I've had to work with, and basically like I said, dealing with the community. You kind of prepare yourself as a deputy, but it's really a lot different when you're dealing with the public as a deputy.
When you say politics, what do you mean?
There's politics in almost everything you do. You've got politics within this office, you've got politics within the community, and you've got politics within the city government. Every year we try to deal with the budget process, and I guess that would be one of the things -- dealing with the politics, basically dealing with the budget.
You brought it up and I guess I'll go there. Right now you are currently suing the city over the budget process and over the funding of your office. Is that the best way to describe the lawsuit?
The best way to describe the lawsuit is, in my opinion, we are underfunded within the Muscogee County Sheriff's office to do the things that we are required to do and what is expected of us to do. And that's probably about as much as I can give you on that.
So, the lawsuit is ongoing right now, right?
And you don't want to talk about the specifics about it?
You're not the only person suing the city. There are three other elected officials: the Marshall (Greg Countryman), the Superior Court Clerk (Linda Pierce) and the Municipal Clerk (Vivian Creighton Bishop). How are those lawsuits connected?
I don't know if they're connected at all, to be honest with you. And really, Chuck, I don't speak on the merits of Linda Pierce's, Greg Countryman's or Vivian's lawsuits, to be honest with you. Even going back to this lawsuit, I find it interesting sometimes that you would have individuals in this community say, "Well, he's got plenty of money. His budget is enough to do what he does. If he can't, get someone else to do it."
How much is your budget?
The total would be almost $27 million.
And that's not enough money to do your job?
When we talk about the county jail, and when you looked at the budget process -- I thought it was very interesting -- once we started looking at things, when you start looking at inmate population to the budget that is allocated to us within the sheriff's office, I think we were the lowest of anyone that we checked. Think about it. We're lower than Augusta, Henry County, Macon ...
These are documented facts?
No doubt in my mind. I know there is a document. Like I've told anybody, I recommend that people call the sheriff's office in Augusta, Richmond County, find out their budget that is allocated toward running the county jail, their inmate population and what is the average cost of housing an inmate for the Richmond County Sheriff's office. Macon, you name it -- I welcome anybody to do that, and then ask us how much we are allocated in the Muscogee County Sheriff's office, our inmate population, and how we're spending per inmate compared to other people. It's lower than all of the ones I presented during the budget process.
But to get back to my point -- and that's what I always say, Chuck -- I welcome anybody doing that. That's what they should be doing, and I'm fine with that. It's real simple for somebody on the outside to say he's got plenty of money, and this, that and the other, until you actually sit in this seat. And there's a big difference. When you start talking about a sheriff's office, there's a number of things that we are constitutionally required to do by the state of Georgia. And there's a lot of other things that are expected of us to do within the sheriff's office, and that's what a lot of people forget sometimes.
So, what's the difference in the four lawsuits?
I only speak on my behalf of my lawsuit.
Do you feel kinship with Marshal Countryman from a law enforcement standpoint with the suit he has against the city?
I don't know enough about his lawsuit to say anything about that. I've always said this since I was a deputy, as a sergeant and the six and a half years I've been sheriff, is if someone asks what is your No. 1 responsibility, it is doing my part as the sheriff and going about running the sheriff's office to provide protection to the citizens of Muscogee County. The safety and welfare of the citizens is the No. 1 priority for everybody in law enforcement, and they go about that in different ways, don't get me wrong. So, my kinship for anybody -- whether it be Marshal Countryman, (Police Chief) Ricky Boren, (Fire and EMS Chief) Jeff Meyer, or anybody in public safety -- is my No. 1 priority, and I hope their No. 1 priority is that.
When people talk about the four lawsuits, you're clear: You're only worried about one of the four.
No, no sir, I'm only knowledgeable on one of them.
You just went through a budget process where the proposed budget by Mayor Tomlinson recommended eight of your investigators be transferred to the Columbus Police Department. Do you feel that was a fair request on her part?
No, I do not.
I don't think it was fair because she never came down and sat in this office and really educated herself on the duties of the investigators in the Muscogee County Sheriff's office. And with our budget presentation, I thought we did an excellent job of educating those who were in attendance, and if anybody has an opportunity to watch that presentation of the different variety of responsibilities and the different tasks that is asked of investigators of the Muscogee County Sheriff's Department, it is a totally different expectation of what is expected of them and the wide gamut of things that they do within the sheriff's office than an investigator within the Columbus Police Department or someone else.
You obviously convinced a majority of the Columbus Council that those investigators needed to be in your department, right?
How did you convince those councilors?
Just like I said, Mr. Williams, we outlined the different things an investigator does within the sheriff's office. And it is not just going out here and talking to someone about a financial crime or an embezzlement, or something like that. They do a variety of different things for us and I think that was very important in our budget presentation to educate not only the council, but those in our community about what we do as a sheriff's office. ...
Who produced that video?
Andrew O'Shields. We did that in-house with no cost to the taxpayer.
Are you going to put that video on the government access channel?
That's a good question. I don't know. I know we've been trying to push it through different media outlets on a small scale, but I have not asked them about that.
What is your relationship with Mayor Tomlinson?
My relationship with the mayor, I think, is professional and courteous. It's pretty obvious that we are a little bit different on some things as far as it goes with the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office. But I can tell you this, you can talk to a number of people in this community that know me, you can talk with a number of people who work with me in the sheriff's office that know me, and you can talk to a lot of people that I grew up with, and I'm not an egotistical person. It's my main No. 1 goal -- and I will always say this -- is to do the best job I can as the sheriff of Muscogee County, to not only lead the sheriff's office for the men and women who work here, but to do our part to serve this community. And that is my No. 1 thing, to run a very professional agency. So, what my point is this: I don't have an ego. I don't.
This is all about business when it comes to what we're talking about, and I think that's what is important for most people in this community. I don't think most people in this community like the fact that we are in litigation, and I don't like the fact that we're in litigation, to be perfectly honest with you.
Why don't you like that?
I think it's bad. Any time you have litigation between anybody within the city government, with the city government, that's not good. I think that's pretty obvious. Sometimes it unfortunately happens. It's happened with other sheriffs' offices in the state of Georgia in the past and that's unfortunate. ... And people need to remember this -- and I don't think a lot of people do -- is after the budget we're in now that we are in litigation about, I met with finance trying to work out the differences.
Did you sit down face to face with Mayor Tomlinson?
No, not Mayor Tomlinson. She sent Pam Hodge and those in finance. And I sat down twice with them to try to work out the differences.
The difference was $2 million, right?
At that time, yessir.
What is the difference now?
I think with some things that we have done within the sheriff's office, and some other things, I think it's going to be about $1.2 (million).
You're requesting $1.2?
No, no, no. That was in the budget that we're in now.
The budget that you're in now that you need $1.2 million more than what you're getting?
Yes, but there's a variety of things that drive that. From medical cost in the jail, the number of inmates -- that population goes up and down. Of the big things, if you ever look at the budget and the line item, one of the biggest differences we have is the bailiff and reserve deputy, which is the focus for that group as well. Security for not only the courthouse here, but the Citizens Service Center that they asked us to provide security for security at recorders court and the bailiffs that work in the courtroom for the judges and for us.
As you look back, you've had personnel matters. And I guess any sheriff or any administrator in city government is going to have personnel matters. But you have had some personnel matters that have ended up in litigation. Were you prepared for that when you started that job?
No, you don't expect that.
As you have worked through, you had a lawsuit where a federal judge ordered you to make a promotion from within the department.
And you have done that, right?
Did that lawsuit that was brought by three female deputies, ending up to be two, did that lawsuit damage this department in any way?
Yeah, I believe it did a little bit at the time. I think like a lot of things, time heals a lot of stuff.
For me, it did not. And when you say damage, it would be my relationship with those involved or anybody. ... And you know me, Chuck. In this position, you cannot let things like that affect you. At the end of the day, you still have to do what is best for the Muscogee County Sheriff's office and going about our job.
Now, when I say yes, I think for some individuals within the sheriff's office, their names were mentioned during the lawsuit, they might have some ill will or ill feelings toward the individual. But, I don't think it's much. You don't hear anyone talking about it anymore.
Is the department stronger or weaker as a result of those lawsuits?
Stronger or weaker, I don't know. That's a good question, Chuck. I wish I could give you a better answer. I don't think it's weaker, but would I sit here and say that it's stronger? I don't know that I would say it's stronger.
Do you like the personnel aspect of the sheriff's job? You manage about 500 personnel, right?
Talking full-time and part-time, we're about at 430 or 440.
That's a lot of people to manage.
Is that your least favorite part of this job?
No, I wouldn't say that. When you talk to any individual that runs, and I don't think it matters even in the private sector or the public sector, when you're dealing with employees, unfortunately you'll have employees who will do things that are not as professional as you would want. And then you have to deal with that on different levels. But I want to say that's how I look at it. I think that's just part of it. I don't think there's anything more difficult.
Why did you run in 2008? You ran against your boss.
I ran against the sitting sheriff. For me, it was an accumulation of a lot of little things. I thought we could do a better job with building relationships within the community. I thought we needed to refocus on what I would say was parts of our core mission, and that was to make sure we were doing a better job, I guess, of running the county jail. I thought we had become very stagnant in our pursuit in getting out from under the Department of Justice (decree to improve conditions at the jail). Even up here when you start talking about the Government Center and field services and stuff, I thought we really needed to focus back on what we were supposed to be doing, which was providing civil processes within this community.
Do you have a better understanding now than you did seven years ago of some of the challenges that Sheriff Johnson faced?
Oh, most definitely.
Do you have any empathy?
Yes I do. ... Like any job, you think you're prepared or you're going to be able to come in the door and understand everything. Of course not, and you don't, and I'll give you some examples. The sheriff's office itself, yeah, if you've been around a long time and you've had the opportunity like I did to work in enough areas, you're going to know that, you're going to know the sheriff's office, but it's the little things like dealing with personnel issues. Then you're going to be the final say on any kind of disciplinary action, if there will be any disciplinary actions taken against an individual. The hiring process. Determining if we're going to terminate someone.
Four years ago, you narrowly escaped defeat in the Democratic Primary. You won by how many votes?
Oh, my gosh. I think the final was 67 or 68, something like that.
Oh, my goodness, yes -- extremely close.
Are you going to run in 2016?
Oh, yeah. I'm going to run.
Are you going to run as a Democrat, Republican or an independent?
I don't know. I haven't made up my mind on that.
So, you're not sure how you're going to run? You've been a Democrat in the last two elections.
When are you going to make that decision?
I think that decision will be made sometime next year. And the important question would be why is that. Because, really, the push within the Georgia Sheriffs' Association is to make this a nonpartisan seat.
That's not going to happen between now and 2016.
Probably not unless it happens in the legislature next year. My point to this is there has been a push for the last five years within the Sheriffs' Association to make this a nonpartisan seat. And if you talk to a lot of sheriffs, I believe they would like to see this happen. But will it happen? Who knows? That's the politics of state government.
So, if that doesn't happen, you've got to make a decision do you run as a Democrat or do you run as a Republican or an independent, right?
I don't know. I'm hoping they'll do the right thing and make this a nonpartisan seat -- the way it should be. Just like a judge, I think most people when they look at this position, they're not looking at if the individual is a Republican or a Democrat. They're looking for an individual that's going to do the best job as the sheriff and leading the sheriff's office to do the best things for those in the community.
So, you are planning to run? No question about it?
How many more years do you see yourself doing this?
Ten more years.
So, that means you've got to do two more re-elections.
Who are your mentors?
For me, it's actually in two phases. When you talk about who shaped me within the sheriff's department coming up -- Sgt. Tatum Fowler, I worked for a number of years; Maj. (Mike) Massey, who was here; and Mac Drake. I'd say those three individuals, and a lot my supervisors in my 20 years with the sheriff's office. Just having the opportunity to work for people, understanding how the professionalism and the expectations of what was expected of us within the sheriff's office.
Sitting in the seat you're in now, who do you talk to?
That's a different question, because as a deputy they influenced how I was within the sheriff's office, not outside the job itself. That's different people. Now as the sheriff, Mike Jolley (Harris County Sheriff) is one of the people I talk to as a mentor -- Mike Yeager in Coweta County, and Howard Sills in Putnam County.
So, you'll pick up the phone and call those guys?
Most definitely, and I've done it a lot of times. I think you have to because, just like anything, you think you're going to be prepared until something happens and you'll say, "Oh my goodness. I never would have thought that would happen."
You kind of reach out to people who have been around for a long time, and those individuals have been around for a while as sheriffs.
You said earlier that you and Mayor Tomlinson really haven't sat down over the budget. You and Pam Hodge have, but you and the mayor have not, right?
Do you think your lawsuit could have been avoided if you and Mayor Tomlinson had sat in the same room and hashed it out?
I would hope so. I really do.
So, why didn't that happen?
That's a good question. I don't know. When it came about -- and I don't speak for the mayor, you know that, Mr. Williams -- and I saw the proposed budget, it raised some concerns because I knew it wasn't going to be enough.
What was your reaction?
It was a little disappointing because we had proposed our budget. She had proposed our budget and we had looked at it. I knew it wasn't going to be enough. Then we proposed our budget and some people said that was too much. So, there's always going to be a middle ground on anything, I would imagine.
So, when I saw it I said, "Of course this isn't going to be enough to do what's required of us and what's expected of us." They go hand-in-hand. And I knew it wasn't going to be enough to do that. So, that was my initial reaction. Then when the suggestion was made that we would sit down with finance, and I think the mayor is the one to put out that suggestion, I was very optimistic. I really was, and I think that was what needed to be done, too.
Should she have been in that room?
Should she have been in that room? It would have been nice for her to have been in the room, but I don't know if it were 100 percent necessary, but I think it would have been very beneficial.
But isn't it her contention that your office has consistently overspent its budget over the last five or six years?
I think that's her point, and of course my standard thing is we've been constantly and consistently underfunded. And that's where you have the difference, and that's been my stance for the last few years.
Let's go back, and I'm not trying to beat the drum here, I could give you three sheriffs' offices and you contact them and ask what their budget is and what is your budget associated to the jail, and how many inmates do you have. ... The cost of housing an inmate in Muscogee County and the cost of housing an inmate in Clarke County, Athens. It was like $16,000-$17,000 thousand for us, $24,000 thousand for Clarke. Come on. That's the numbers you should be looking at. A lot of people with tell you, "You can play around with numbers." I don't play around with numbers. I'm as ethical as one can be, and I'm going to be straightforward.
Is the mayor playing around with numbers?
No. I think we should be talking about the numbers we should be talking about -- the cost of the sheriff's office budget and the number of inmates and what we're providing. And that's what I would recommend. Why don't you call up to Richmond County and say, "What's your budget associated with the jail? Your overall budget is like $59 million."
But you have your own shooting range when the city has one. Some people would say that's wasting money.
I don't think it is, for two reasons. The first reason is if you're in the city government and in public safety, everybody knows we had outgrown the size of the police department, the sheriff's office, and if you combine the marshal's office in the equation to the use of that range ...
The range on Cusseta Road?
Cusseta Road. And what you have out there on Schatulga Road. When Jim Wetherington was the mayor, I went to him and we knew there was a need for that.
So, that range was done in conjunction with Mayor Wetherington?
I guess you would say the origin or the birth of that idea was when he was in office.
Did he support it?
Yessir. I think Mayor Wetherington saw there was a need for it. Of course, I'll say this, some of the numbers that you will hear from people within the city government that has been spent at that range are completely wrong, or not accurate. The big initial investment that we did put in that range was like grant money and other things.
Federal grant money?
I think it was federal money, if I remember right.
What do you want the mayor to understand about the operation of this department that you don't think she does?
I don't know if I would answer the question in the way that you asked it. I think I would like for Mayor Tomlinson and any future mayors, regardless if I'm here or when she's gone, or any councilman, to come in and spend a few days and learn all of the integral parts that goes on within the sheriff's office, and go down to the county jail and spend a day or two.
Come over here and spend a day or two in courts, and all that entails to provide security for a murder trial that's going on right now. They don't know that. That way, when you come in -- and Chuck, we're one of the biggest budgets in the city, and that's not only the sheriff's department, that's with any department, of what I would consider a big personnel department or budget department -- just come in and educate yourself to what goes on within the sheriff's office. That's what I'd like to see done.
Can there be a resolution to this, from your perspective, before any more money is spent on this case? Is there a way to resolve it?
Yes, I think so. I wish the judge had forced us into mediation from the get-go. I really do. I still think this could be worked out. I thought it back then; I think it now. I wish we were there.
The citizens are the ones footing the bill for this.
That's right. That's unfortunate. That's the most frustrating part. Like I said, when I talked to one sheriff that had gone through this process, the Chatham County sheriff in Savannah, I talked to the elected sheriff in Dougherty County who was a major at the time ...
Dougherty is Albany.
That's right. When the sheriff at that time had a lawsuit against the county commission in both of those places. What finally gets you to that point? You've got a sheriff in Floyd County that has filed suit against their county commission.
That's up in Rome, right?
Roy Barnes is the attorney that's representing him, which I thought was interesting. I think it is unfortunate.
So, this isn't just you and Columbus. This is happening in other jurisdictions in Georgia?
It has happened in other jurisdictions. The only one I know it's happening in right now is Floyd County. It has happened in the past, but it's unfortunate because at the end of the day, you're right, the taxpayers are the ones who are footing this bill. That's why a lot of people in this community are frustrated.
I don't think it has anything to do with the lawsuit sometimes or not a lawsuit. People in this community, they should expect this and they do expect this. They expect city leaders to be elected, appointed, or whatever, to be able to get together and do what's best for the citizens of Muscogee County. And I do believe that.
That's what they should expect from us. And where we're at right now, I thing that really becomes very disappointing for them. Sometimes you'll hear, "I don't see why they can't work this out." And that's unfortunate. I hate the fact that I'm part of that, to be honest with you. As I told you, Chuck, I sat down twice to try and resolve this before it got to where we're at now. And I don't like where we're at now.
Why wasn't it resolved?
I don't know. I really don't know. I don't want to speak on behalf of the city. I can tell you this: When we went into that process, I thought we would go over every line item that we had a difference in, the overall budget, and we ended up only talking about a few items, differences in some areas, and that was it. And it was kind of like the meeting was over with. I was kind of taken aback by that. Of course, when you print that, the mayor is going to take exception to that. We talked about six line items -- that's the truth. Regardless of what everybody tells you, we talked about six line items out of how many differences we had. Come on, was that a true effort? No. I came into that meeting thinking we're going to do everything we can to resolve this.
Are you willing to sit down in a room with no lawyers with you and the mayor and try to figure this out?
Yes, I am, but I don't know what the attorneys for the city would say or the attorneys for me would say.
Just the two of you sitting down in a room and trying to figure it out.
No doubt. Oh, yessir.
What's the obstacle (to) that happening?
Right now, I think it would be the one we're talking about. What the attorney for her would say and what the attorney for me would say. But from my perspective, I'm willing to do that, have always been willing to do that. And if you talked to people in this community, I think that's what they would expect -- I'm not just saying that -- if you go out in this community and talk to the ones that follow this a little bit,
I think that's what you would hear: "They just need to sit down in a room and get this worked out." I've heard that. I've had people tell me that. It would have been nice if the judge had ordered mediation right off the bat, basically, and that's the same thing as sitting in a room and talking this out.
Are you glad you ran for this job?
Oh, most definitely. I love this job, I really do. We laugh about it, but I do. Somebody asked me about this -- I don't get stressed about none of this.
Are you taking it personal?
No. I do not take it personal. I think you have two individuals that really think differently about what's required and the amount needed to run the sheriff's office.
The two individuals are who?
The Mayor and me. And it is no different when she suggested removing eight of the investigators.
Was that personal?
I would hope not. You would have to ask her and she would say no, but I would hope it is not. I hope she was thinking that what was in the big picture for the city was what was best.
I think she was doing what she thought was best and I know it would have a huge impact on the sheriff's office in a negative way, especially for what's expected of those investigators. Sometimes we talk about duplication of services and that's been the big buzz word. And I believe if you had talked to the mayor, she believes there is a duplication of services. And the big scope of pictures is no duplication of services. Right now most of our investigators are providing security for individuals that are associated with this murder trial.
Name: John Darr
Job: Sheriff of Muscogee County since January 2009; began working for the Sheriff's Office on March 1, 1988, and has worked there for 27 years, with a break in 2008 to run for sheriff.
Education: Hardaway High School. 1984; associate degree in pre-physical therapy, Columbus State University
Family: Linda, wife of 27 years; four children, Rachael, Michelle, Courtney and Troy; three grandchildren