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Sheriff's, Coroner's Debates Target Plans for Community Improvement

Candidates discuss their plan of action on how they'll make Forsyth County a better place if elected.

With an intent to create a dialogue among candidates, the Forsyth County Republican Party hosted Wednesday night's debate. 

Sheriff's candidates were asked for their thoughts on how the new justice complex will change the responsibility of the sheriff's office. They were also asked to specify their qualifications rendering them the best suited candidate to address the coming changes. 

Duane Piper said, "I don't think it changes the responsibility, I think it gives us more room. We may be able to cut down on some of the numbers that we have to use for the court system to be reassigned someplace else. We'll have a more contained area. Also with the new jail being built, I'm assuming since the one we're in right now is 1970's technology, that the new jail will be built with more modern practices that are less man-power intensive."

Lauren McDonald stated that we don't know what we're going to have right now as the facility is still in its early planning stages. "Hopefully the designers, commissioners and sheriff [Paxton] will use all resources to implement great technology and safety, not only for us as citizens outside the jail, but for the inmates. They too have rights, and we have to make sure that their safety is met every day. Being right next to the courthouse will also cut down on gas and staff."

Sheriff Paxton said the new facility is not going to change the department's role. "Our role is still going to be the same. The new courthouse is designed to accommodate what is needed now in security measures within the courthouse. There have been tremendous changes in penal technology since then, [1970's] so we'll have a more efficient operation in addition, there's going to be secure connectivity in that we'll be able to move inmates from the courthouse to the jail without having to get them out of confinement, put them in cars, crank up the cars and burn gas fuel."

Duane Piper added that as sheriff, he would exert any input he'd have to move the facility away from downtown. "I haven't researched it and I don't know if it's possible. I personally don't want my downtown area, a beautiful area like we've got turned into a government center, and that's what we're about to do. I'd do whatever I could to get that moved."

Paxton explained that he's on the steering committee and planning board for the new courthouse and jail and that as such, he has a very substantial role in that process.

"It is the sheriff's responsibility to operate the county's jail, it is not the sheriff's jail, it is the county's jail. Moving it out of town, we still have the reality that the courthouse is right here, so if we move the jail way outside of town somewhere, we're going to be right back into an inefficient operation in as much as we're going to be having to take them [inmates] out of a secure environment, get them into cars and vans, load them and haul them into town back and forth each day, which once again, dedicates more personnel."

Candidates were asked to assess the gang situation, Forsyth County and what strategies they would use to combat it.

Piper said he believes that the gang situation was a problem four or five years ago. "At one point, we were having increasing problems with the gangs, but as the building industry has gone down, a lot of the illegals have left the area and a lot of the gang problem with them. We still have some extent of it, but not to the extent that we did have. I would address it through training, refocusing our priorities and giving officers options in their training."

McDonald said he'd taken some gang training back in December. "As far as knowing what our gang problem is in the community, I don't know that at this point, but I'm sure there are issues and pockets out there and we just need to make sure that we have the resources that are available when they do pop up, so we respond to them efficiently."

Sheriff Paxton pointed out a sharp drop-off in the last several years in what the department suspected to be gang related crimes.

"There have been two things that seem to have helped. One is that several years ago, we joined in with the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office as well as the FBI, we joined a gang task force to try to get out in front of the problem. We wanted to get on the front end of it and curb it before it got a strong hold over here. The other thing that has impacted it, is the reality that gangs are typically born out of the Hispanic community and we've had a significant decline of that population here in Forsyth County because of the tying up of labor with the divide in the economy, they're just not here like they were."

In closing statements, Duane Piper noted his 25 year background in law enforcement. He also pointed out that the sheriff's office controls 41 percent of the county's overall operating budget, and that there's no logical explanation for why the budget has tripled while the population has only grown by 70 percent. "I'll do my part to bring the budget and debt under control. We need to make a change while we still have a handle on this."

Paxton said it's been his honor to serve the county as sheriff since 2001. "We talk about a lot of things. We talk about comparing budgets and comparing this entity with that entity, but it's very hard to compare two or any more of them on their surface. I'm standing on my record of what we've done, what we've accomplished and where we've come to. We have a community that is very safe, correct, but I will counter that the reason it is safe is because of the work that we have done, the way we've trained our deputies and how they've applied that out in the field and the many programs we have in place. That's why we are where we are today."

McDonald said he wants to give the community his values, his ethics and his leadership. "It's demanded at my home and I want to offer that to you. It's needed in this community. We've got a lot of challenges coming up and as your next sheriff, I will meet those challenges and I won't let you down, I promise you."

Did you attend the Wednesday night debates? If so, what did you think?

Coroner candidates began their debate with a question about their experience that would qualify them to become the county's next coroner. 

said he'd draw on his numerous certifications and training in forensic investigations, interview techniques and cold case work, including being with Gwinnett and Cobb County medical examiners offices for 23 years. Annually, Bennett investigated over 300 deaths a year including natural deaths and homicides. Bennett holds a bachelor's degree from Oglethorpe University and is currently working on a master's degree in forensic anthropology from the University of New Orleans.

Mark Musselwhite cited his knowledge about the working budget of a coroner's office and his work as a licensed embalmer and funeral director at McDonald & Son Funeral Home. Musslewhite holds a bachelor's degree in marketing.

bases her qualifications for coroner on being a trained legal death investigator. She also cited 30 years of experience in trauma care. Pais further expounded on her qualifications by pointing out her expertise in the pharmacological and medical fields. Pais has been a registered nurse for over 30 years.

Mark Musselwhite responded to Ms. Pais by citing with all due respect that a dead person does not need a nurse. On a supportive note, he added, "There is a benefit to having a medical background and being able to speak that language as a liaison between the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) and the investigators and people. That's what a coroner does."

Pais said she respects her opponents opinions but that she feels it's critical for an individual to be well aware of all of the different medical and surgical issues that may arise and being able to identify them in an individual. "Having that knowledge base is extremely valuable for the deceased and their family."

On the question of accomplishing improvements to the coroner's office over the next few years, Pais cited the budget in regards to the deputy coroners as an area that need work.  

"We need to be a little bit more efficient and effective and we need to reduce our response time to calls. We also need to computerize our coroner's system. As it stands right now, it's all paper and pencil."

Bennett said he feels the communication with the public needs improvement. "The coroner needs to get more involved in our school systems. When I was at Gwinnett County, one of the programs I instituted over there was taking first offended teenagers involved in drug or alcohol related deaths where they were required to attend a one-hour seminar in the morgue where they saw the results and the consequences of their actions. Community involvement from the coroner's office needs to be done."

Musselwhite said he agrees with both of his contenders. "There are some personnel and budget issues that need to be addressed. Musselwhite described a program already in place with the court system that takes teens through the embalming process. "They see the morgue and death firsthand through graphic photos. I think we can make these programs even better."

Pais agreed that it's important to involve young people.

When asked, all candidates agreed that deputy coroners play a very important role.

"Having a structured on-call system with our deputy coroners is how I would continue to utilize the deputies," said Musselwhite.

Pais stated that the county currently has three deputy coroners. 'They're extremely valuable. Certainly, I can't be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, if you look at the coroner's office, the deputy coroners have taken the vast number of calls and as such, our budget for the coroner's office is way out of whack. So albeit they are wonderful people, and I need them, I can't expect them to be on call as much as they are." 

Bennett pointed out that the deputies don't get paid for making telephone calls. "They only get paid for going out to the scene on a call. Last year in the budget designated for the deputy coroners, not all of it was used and the money that was not used was given back to the county, so it wasn't money that was tucked away for the coroner to use on other things."

All candidates wrapped the debate with closing statements urging voters to take their qualifications into consideration at the polls on July 31.

Cumming Patch will have more updates on this incident.

If you're interested in this story, here are a few others:

SOGTP June 22, 2012 at 02:38 PM
I liked all the responses by the Sheriff candidates, except for one minor item. Sheriff Paxton said; " We have a community that is very safe, correct, but I will counter that the reason it is safe is because of the work that we have done, the way we've trained our deputies and how they've applied that out in the field and the many programs we have in place." The highly trained deputies and the policies applied in the field are reacting after a crime is committed. The reason this county is relatively safe is the moral make up of the residents.
Phil Windsor June 23, 2012 at 12:50 AM
I'm amazed at the arrogance of Sheriff Paxton. He began the answer to the first question by laughing and saying we don't have "Police Officers, we have Deputy Sheriff's". Although true, it shows that to most citizens, a cop is a cop. He continued to be on the defensive with each question and appeared annoyed he had to be there. McDonald, all I can say is he is clueless. He feels AED's and Deputies in schools will save the county. The only one who addressed the issues was Piper. I hope the voters wake up before they continue to dig another hole for four more years.
Anne Hakooz June 23, 2012 at 06:57 AM
I believe it's necessary to have a Sheriff in office with law enforcement experience. I'm sure McDonald has good intentions, however his lack of experience is alarming at best. Paxton I believe has to move on. He is so full of himself. He's so condesending and disrespectful. His position has gone to his head.... and it's time to go. My vote goes to Piper. He has the experience and know's what our county needs. Honesty, accountability and a LEADER who will lead by example. Not do what I say... not as I do mentality. Remember Paxton, WE pay your salary... the "little people". YOU serve us!
SOGTP June 23, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Anne - you do realize that the Coroner accedes to the Sheriff's office in times when the Sheriff is incapacitated. It is in Georgia Law and has been this was for thousand years. Many people don't realize but the Coroner investigates deaths, along with the GBI, prior to turning them over to the detectives.
Joe Freedom June 23, 2012 at 06:39 PM
Phil, What exactly are we "saving the county" from ? I think having and AED in a police vehicle is a very smart idea. A majority of the time Law Enforcement is the first one on the scene of many incidents. There have been many examples of these AED's being used early on in incidents and saving peoples lives. Furthemore, the kids in our schools will someday be running this county. I think it is important we educate them on dangers like drugs, alcohol and the ever increasing threat of these new synthetic drugs that cause people to do horrible things.
loretta barber June 25, 2012 at 05:12 AM
PAXTON SAID THERE ARE NO LAW SUITS ON HIM AND THE JAIL?he better check again. there are a few coming his way. you treat the people you are ware housing terrible. they can sit in jail years before they go to court. and they never get a piece of fresh fruit.the serving size of your meals are not even enough to satisfy a five year old child. no one ever gets outside for fresh air.or excercize. you run that jail worse then hitler ran his death camps. that is why young men hang thereselves in your jail. yes you are getting sued.that is the least we can do. and GOD have mercy on your soul.
Archer J. June 25, 2012 at 02:47 PM
Bill, are YOU aware that coroners, are NOT required to be trained in any way as forensic pathologists? Didn't you see the PBS documentary?http://www.npr.org/2011/02/02/133403760/coroners-dont-need-degrees-to-determine-death (Good thing Bennett is running for coroner) In the case of McDonald, just because he "investigates" deaths, doesn't mean he's trained to do so in any way. McDonald has received no training in forensic investigations. He runs a funeral home. As a result, he may be misled in thinking that some type of "on the-job-training" applies to becoming sheriff too. Truth is, he'd be utterly overwhelmed as sheriff, and it would be a disaster to this county and his own family in terms of stress. It could break him, possibly cause him to have health issues brought on by a type of tension he's nowhere close to being able to handle. Experience is a necessity for holding the office of sheriff. Any other line of thinking on the subject is naive.
SOGTP June 25, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Archer J - I understand the Coroner relationship since Georgia does not use the Medical Examiner model. I like Harold Bennett's experience. I disagree on your assessment of the Sheriff and his forensic investigation training. Do you think the current Sheriff does these investigations? And all three are just a likely to break under stress. In fact, one of the candidates already has, another is prone to hot headedness, and the other already responds to accidents, deaths, suicides, murders, etc. Just a different way of looking at things.

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