Candidates vying to be Dawson County's next sheriff fielded questions from the public Thursday during the first of what is expected to be many candidate forums as the May election draws closer.
Organized by Mickey Gilbertson, a retired lawman who wanted to give citizens the opportunity to ask candidates questions rather than a having a predetermined list of topics, the debate held at the Dawson County Library drew a crowd of more than 80 citizens.
Topics ranged from budgetary shortfalls in the sheriff's office and a dwindling staff that's leaving for higher paying departments, to new programs the candidates would like to implement and plans to reduce crime in the county.
Hopefuls Jeff Johnson, Jeff Perry and Frank Sosebee also detailed their experience and qualifications, as well as highlighted what their top priorities will be if elected.
Commander of the Dawson County Detention Center, Johnson, who also serves as the department's firearms instructor, said he wants to continue offering popular community programs designed to empower the citizens.
"One of the things we've done that I've initiated over the past several years is a firearms training class. Let's be honest, we've got on average seven deputies on the road," he said. "I want to empower our people to be prepared. [When] you pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1...during that precious time, I want you to be able to take care of yourself."
Management concerns, specifically targeting the recent loss of so many employees, are among Perry's first goals to address.
"They lost 123 people to other counties in the last seven years. It cost $8,000 to put someone through basic training and get them on the road. That's almost a million dollars," said Perry, who recently retired from a more than 30-year career as a parole officer. "We've got to take care of our folks here. We've got to increase our pay.
"We've got to form a new leadership where we don't lose people to these neighboring counties, because you cannot replace experience."
Sosebee, who currently serves as chief of security at the Hall County Correctional Institution, said his greatest priority will be a restructuring to place officers in every school across the county.
"There's not a school resource officer in all the schools. Safety of our children in first and foremost," he said. "Second is going to be increasing the patrol where we have more visibility out here, and it won't be any cost to the taxpayers. I've got this figured out. What we're going to do is adjust the organization that's here and put qualified officers in the top positions."
Tony Wooten, who has also announced his intentions to run for the office, did not attend the event after announcing he would suspend his campaign during the month of December in observance of the Christmas holidays.
He is the public information officer and community policing program supervisor for five-term Sheriff Billy Carlisle, who announced earlier this year that he would not seek reelection.
All four are running as republicans.
Judy Cox, wife of the late Joe Lane Cox who served as sole commissioner in Dawson County and late Mayor of Dawsonville, said she was proud to see so many candidates interested in stepping up to run for sheriff.
"They're all very good men, and I just feel very proud tonight," she said.
Qualifying for the sheriff's race will be held March 7-11, with the primary election set for May 24. In the event there is a runoff, that election will be held July 26.
If no democrats seek the office, the primary winner would be the new sheriff and would take office Jan. 1, 2017.