Muscogee County Marshal Greg Countryman recently went before the city’s budget review committee looking for a couple of new squad cars. What he got was criticism, scrutiny and a proposal to conduct a study into whether his department should even exist.
Scrutiny is nothing new for the marshal’s office. Because its mission is so similar to that of the sheriff’s department, council and other citizens often question why the two shouldn’t be combined. In fact, the city held referenda in 1984 and in 2000 to see if citizens wanted the office to go away. They did not.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said one of the first things she did when she took office in January was to get Police Chief Ricky Boren, Sheriff John Darr and Countryman together and work out any differences there might be between them. She said in the last four months, a lot of progress has been made and a lot of the “leftover baggage” was being left behind.
“What I found after a couple of meetings was that there was mutual professional respect among them,” Tomlinson said. “I don’t think the community as a whole has caught up with the progress that those three individuals have made in the last four months.
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“So when all this came up (in the budget review committee), I thought it was unfortunate that the council hadn’t had the opportunity to see the evolution that I’ve seen, that they were rehashing the old story.”
After speaking to both Darr and Countryman, Tomlinson decided to seek an economic assessment of the situation to determine whether it would make fiscal sense to merge the marshal’s office into the sheriff’s office. She said both men were receptive to the idea -- Darr because he thinks the decision should be based on facts and Countryman because he thinks the assessment will show the value of his department in a tangible way.
“Nobody knows if that’s going to be a more efficient way of doing it,” Darr said. “I look at it as a workload. If it were turned over to us we couldn’t handle it because we don’t have the personnel to handle the workload we have now.
“I don’t think people realize the workload the sheriff’s office has,” he added.
“This is a great thing,” Countryman said. “It’s a chance for the citizens to see the full benefits of having a marshal’s office and also see our added value.”
The two offices are similar. Both serve the courts -- the marshal covering the Municipal Court and the sheriff covering the State and Superior Courts. They provide security for the courts and serve all the papers from their respective courts.
To further muddy the waters, there is some overlap, with the sheriff serving some warrants from Municipal Court. In that court, the Marshal’s Office serves all civil documents, while the Sheriff’s Office serves criminal warrants from the court, Darr said.
On average, the Sheriff’s Office annually receives about 8,000 criminal warrants total from various courts.
Sheriff’s deputies also carry out some evictions. In 2010, the Sheriff’s Office received 812 writs of possession from magistrate court, Darr said, but not all of those resulted in actual evictions.
By comparison, the Marshal’s Office received 12,019 dispossessory warrants that resulted in 5,088 evictions.
In 2010, the Sheriff’s Office received about 24,000 subpoenas from various courts, as well as 14,867 civil papers and 740 out-of-state papers.
The Marshal’s Office received 30,215 civil processes in 2010.
Also at issue with some councilors is the fact that the Muscogee County Marshal has police powers other marshals do not.
Out of 159 counties in Georgia, only 26 have marshals. Because of a 1983 amendment to the 1915 act that established the Columbus Municipal Court, the Muscogee County marshal is the only one of those 26 who has the same police powers as the sheriff, according to a 2003 ruling by then-state Attorney General Thurbert Baker.
Because of this, all of Countryman’s deputies have the same training as a sheriff’s deputy or a police officer. They also have the same gear, which is one thing that some members of Council have challenged.
The use of those police powers and the use of full police gear have also sparked of criticism, including during the recent budget review committee confrontation.
“You don’t need a $52,000 fully equipped pursuit vehicle to deliver court papers,” said Councilor Gary Allen, who suggested the marshal’s deputies might drive Ford Fusions.
“Explain to me why you need two patrol vehicles,” followed Councilor Red McDaniel. “You’re not in the patrol business.”
Countryman called the comments “shocking” and “offensive.”
He also explained that aside from conducting some joint traffic duties with other agencies, his deputies do not patrol. They only issue tickets or make arrests if they witness criminal behavior while conducting their other duties, he said.
The county marshal was the first law enforcement officer ever appointed in Columbus. Ephraim C. Bandy was the first, appointed by the city aldermen in 1831. A few years later, when an official police force was established, the marshal acted as the chief of police.
But it’s the office’s more recent history that has drawn much of its criticism -- the “leftover baggage” the mayor referred to.
Countryman’s predecessors invariably had a knack for public imbroglios that kept the efficacy of and need for a Marshal’s Office in the spotlight. Ken Suddeth, the incumbent Countryman unseated in 2004, served the office 12 years and generated headlines even after his defeat as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation probed a number of alleged improprieties.
Suddeth was sharply criticized for distributing some 140 “honorary badges” that closely resembled those worn by sworn deputies. He also admitted in 2001 that he never had been a part of an elite U.S. Air Force Pararescue unit during two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, a tale he told for nearly 30 years.
To win office in 1992, Suddeth defeated Cecil Burt, a former Ku Klux Klansman. Months before that election, Suddeth’s predecessor, Billy Ray Weary, abruptly resigned after 3½ years in office amid claims of racism and sexual harassment.
Weary’s 3½-year term had been marked by a court battle with former Chief Deputy Diane Cowell, who sued Weary to regain the job she lost when he took office. Weary had fired Cowell for running against him as a write-in candidate after he upset Harvey S. Brown in the 1988 Democratic primary.
Brown had been appointed marshal after Gus H. Skinner resigned the post because of health reasons. During his tenure, Brown stirred up controversy and was criticized by a Muscogee County grand jury for conducting undercover drug investigations and seeking to expand the office’s duties.
Brown also was scrutinized for using his office to sell tickets to a fundraising roast to help pay off his campaign debts. The event ultimately was cancelled, but the episode prompted city councilors to adopt a resolution asking Brown to confine his activities and those of his staff to the “duties of his office.”
Skinner, who served as marshal for 16 years, raised some eyebrows himself after firing two veterans of his office just a month before he retired. He was accused of terminating the deputies, Trudie Farley and Robert Day, for political reasons. Both officers settled claims with the city for $11,000 the next year.
Abolishing the Marshal’s Office has often been floated as a remedy to the recurring controversies that have plagued the office, regardless of who served as marshal. But over the past 26 years, voters have twice rejected proposals to merge the offices, shooting down a referendum most recently in 2000 by a whopping 62 percent.
Council can’t eliminate the office because it was created by an act of the state legislature. The legislature could eliminate it, but will not act without a referendum showing that it’s the will of the local citizens.
The people who take out some of the writs and warrants the marshal’s office serves are among its supporters.
Rick Turner, a local insurance agent who also owns about 85 properties, said merging often seems like a good thing because you can reduce some expenses and levels of management.
“My only contention,” he said, “would be the marshals’ job. I think it’s just a specialized area that really ought to be left alone.”
Turner said the Marshal’s Office typically carries out an eviction within about two weeks of the initial court filings. He said there was a time a few years ago when the proceedings could take between six and eight weeks. Overall, Turner said he is satisfied with the efficiency of the Marshal’s Office.
“They’re probably the best now they’ve ever been,” Turner said. “The marshals are a little bit more professional and efficient than they’ve been in years past.”
But, he added: “I don’t think these marshals need to be running around town with radar, and I don’t think they need these beefed-up cruisers.”
Jim Evans of Fountain City Realty said he relies on the Marshal’s Office for all of his evictions. He said it costs about $50 to evict a tenant using the Marshal’s Office, adding he would have to pay about twice that if he used the Sheriff’s Office.
Darr likened the Sheriff’s Office fees to pre-set bonds, which are determined by state statute.
“It kind of takes it out of the sheriff’s hands,” he said. “It’s cheaper to go through the Marshal’s Office.”
“We lose millions of dollars every year in defaults,” Evans said. “Why would you want to pay more money for something when you can get the same service for half?”
Evans also said he thinks councilors who want to equip the marshal’s deputies differently from other agencies are off base.
“These guys risk their lives,” he said. “They stand on the doorsteps of these angry tenants. Sometimes they run across felons. I wish the city would go ahead and give (Countryman) the resources he was promised with this one-cent sales tax.”
Where from here
Tomlinson said she is not sure when the economic assessment will be performed. The funding for it must be approved by Council, then a bid must be prepared and a firm chosen from the bidders.
She expects the cost to be in the neighborhood of $60,000 to $70,000, but said she thinks it’s worth the expense to have an objective third party perform the assessment rather than someone in the Consolidated Government.
“Let’s get someone who can be truly objective and doesn’t have a dog in the fight,” she said.
Tomlinson said the assertion that consolidation automatically brings about savings can be faulty.
“A lot of times you can create a thicker, slower bureaucracy,” she said. “There is something to be said for specialization. That’s the very reason large organizations break up into departments and the divisions within the departments.”
She also used a military analogy to explain the value of having the departments separate.
“It’s sort of like the Navy, Air Force and the Marines,” she said. “They’re all trained to do different parts of the same mission. They’re all essential, so no one is going to suggest combining the Navy, Air Force and the Marines into one big department.”