Originally created 05/04/02

Sheriff sues panel to get jail

Oglethorpe County Sheriff Jason Lowe wants a new jail, and he's willing to sue the County Commission to get it.

Meanwhile, the commission chairman says the jail will be built in due time, and he doesn't appreciate the timing of Sheriff Lowe's lawsuit.

The long-simmering power struggle between the sheriff and commissioners reached a boiling point this week when Sheriff Lowe filed suit against the commission, demanding that a jail be built and that he be allocated the necessary funds and equipment to run his department.

The sheriff said he had hoped the issue wouldn't come to filing suit.

"We've done everything we can," he said. "We've got to move to the next step now to get something stirred up so we can get this jail built."

Sheriff Lowe caused a fair amount of controversy last year when he shut down the aging county jail over fire code violations and began housing his inmates in Hancock, Lincoln and Wilkes counties.

Sheriff Lowe's private attorney, Alan Alexander, says county taxpayers are paying for the lack of new facilities to the tune of more than $400,000 per year.

He said the county is sitting on about $3.5 million in sales tax funds earmarked for a jail. The tax was approved by voters in a 1997 referendum.

OGLETHORPE COUNTY Commission Chairman Charles Mathews doesn't dispute that the county has the money to build the jail. He says the delay has been caused by a failure to find a suitable location.

Three sites were considered and rejected for various reasons, including a constituent uproar over one proposal, he said.

"Ironically, we'll be closing on a piece of property (today)," Mr. Mathews said Wednesday. "This comes as the lawsuit comes."

As for Sheriff Lowe's suit, Mr. Mathews said, "That's something that we don't appreciate, but we'll let the lawyers handle it."

Oglethorpe County Attorney Norman Slawsky, who ordinarily represents both the sheriff and the County Commission, said the sheriff's claims shouldn't stand up.

"They have to show that the commissioners have no discretion in those (decisions), and I don't think they can show that," Mr. Slawsky said. "I don't think it's going to be successful, but that will be up to a judge."

Which judge remains to be seen. Northern Circuit Superior Court judges will likely recuse themselves from the politically sensitive issue, attorneys on both sides acknowledged.

IT'S NOT UNHEARD OF for a sheriff to sue a county commission in Georgia.

Just last month, Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway filed suit against the Gwinnett County Commission over funding disputes. In the mid-1970s, then-Clarke County Sheriff Tommy Huff sued the County Commission over the number of deputies he could hire.

Mr. Mathews vows the jail will be built, though he hopes for less than the $3 million that seems to be the benchmark for bidders.

"I think that's still too high," Mr. Mathews said. "We want a nice new jail for the taxpayers, but at the right price."

"We've done everything we can. We've got to move to the next step now to get something stirred up so we can get this jail built." - Oglethorpe County Sheriff Jason Lowe, on his lawsuit against the County Commission


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