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Sheriff candidates speak at Dawson County Republican Party meeting
sheriff race
From left: Sheriff Jeff Johnson, moderator Mike Berg, Marcus Sewell, Jeff Perry, and Dawson County Republican Party President Seanie Zappendorf. - photo by Joshua Demarest

The meeting of the Dawson County Republican Party drew a crowd of nearly a hundred people to the Bowen Center for the Arts to hear the candidates for sheriff speak.

The meeting, which included food catered by Fajita Grill, offered current Sheriff Jeff Johnson and challengers Jeff Perry and Marcus Sewell an opportunity to discuss their policy proposals and qualifications for holding the office.

The main points addressed by each candidate included managing the budget, recruiting and retaining staff, and leadership.

Johnson, the incumbent, started the night by discussing the accomplishments his office has achieved during his time as Sheriff, which include the formation of a SWAT team, staying under-budget every year, accreditation for the medical department at the Dawson County Detention Center, better equipment for officers, a new judgmental use of force simulator, and technological advances including online registries of current inmates and registered sex offenders.

“I’m thankful to say we’ve been able to accomplish a lot of those goals while overcoming some huge obstacles,” said Johnson, referring to some of the internal divides that ran through the sheriff’s office after Johnson’s election in 2016.

“If you want to get divides among people — you can see it in this room tonight — if you want to see divides among people, talk about politics. Talk about religion. And you’re going to see great divides. The same thing happened in our office.”

More than twenty employees of the sheriff’s office left after Johnson was elected to his first term.

But in spite of all that, Johnson asserted, “we’ve been able to overcome some huge obstacles, and we’ve been able to forge ahead and accomplish a lot of good things.”

Jeff Perry was next to stand up and speak to the audience.

Perry led with policy proposals about how to manage the budget while increasing compensation for officers.

“It’s easy to manage a budget when you have money, but from 2008 until I retired in 2016, everyone knows we were in a dramatic recession. I had to manage the budget, retain staff, and I did that. And there’s nothing more difficult than … asking the Governor ‘hey, I need some more money’ and having him say ‘yeah, you’re not getting any more, as a matter of fact, we’re going to take some away.’”

Perry said that giving everyone in the department a raise wasn’t necessarily the best path forward. He outlined proposals such as paying higher salary for additional education or choosing one officer a year to send to school to get a degree and having the county pay for it in return for a contract saying the officer would continue to work for the county for the next five years.

Perry also mentioned a lesson he learned at the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia, that “people don’t leave jobs because of money, they leave jobs because of bad leaders.” Perry then discussed instituting programs to find and foster capable leaders in the department.

Marcus Sewell was the final candidate to speak.

Sewell started by discussing what he saw as the proper role of police officers in the community.

“We’re here to serve the citizens of Dawson County. And sometimes people lose touch with what this office is supposed to do,” said Sewell. “We took an oath to serve this community; we took an oath to protect this community. So when you’re asleep at nighttime, you expect me, or the men and women of the sheriff’s office, to protect you.”

Sewell also wasted no time going after Jeff Johnson for some of the things that have gone on during his tenure as Sheriff.

“We’ve got to bring leadership in — we’re hurting in leadership. We’ve got a lot of young officers in this county that need good leaders that lead from the front, not from the back. We got to get somebody who’s going to get on top of the budget. You’ve got to realize we can’t sue the county. We can’t increase the budget every year. We got to work to compromise.”

Sewell finished by answering a question from a child about what he planned to do about school bullying.

“It’s all about putting your SRO [school resource officer] out there and getting to know the kids. … It’s all about getting in there and mentoring a little bit — getting to know the person so not just being Deputy So-and-so.”

After the event, the candidates stayed to mingle with the crowd and answer questions from potential voters.