Originally created 07/18/04

Numbers drive race for sheriff

In the heated race for Columbia County sheriff, the two candidates have picked over innumerable details, questioning each other during the past several months on everything from background qualifications to credit card purchases.

But the heart of the dueling campaigns comes down to numbers - a dropping crime rate that incumbent Sheriff Clay Whittle pledges to continue if re-elected, and a department budget figure that challenger Lewis Blanchard vows to pare down by cutting out what he calls wasteful spending.

But the most important numbers for the two men's immediate future will be the vote tally Tuesday night, when the position is decided from Columbia County's Republican primary ballots.

"I want to continue doing what we've been doing. I want to continue to work on the crime rate," Sheriff Whittle said, citing statistics that the county's overall crime rate has dropped 26 percent since he took office while the county's population has grown 17 percent.

Sheriff Whittle first won the position in a special election in 1995 after working for a decade through the ranks of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office. Prior to joining Columbia County, he worked for the Richmond County Sheriff's Office for a year before starting work with Department of Energy security at Savannah River Site.

While this is his first run for sheriff, Mr. Blanchard said he has the law enforcement and business background that qualifies him to efficiently run the sheriff's office, which has nearly 310 employees and a $15 million budget.

Mr. Blanchard, who owns the Augusta corporate hospitality company Executive Marketing Services, worked for Hilton Head Island Beach Patrol before becoming the public safety school director for the Columbia County School System in 1990.

He also worked as a reserve deputy in the Columbia County Sheriff's Office and used to own Last Call and Somewhere in Augusta, both of which he has sold.

Mr. Blanchard's campaign statistics focus on items including how money is being allocated at the sheriff's office.

"Right now, we pay our top six administrators $580 a month to drive their personal cars to and from work," he said. "We pay select officers - in addition to uniforms and weapons - we give them another $110 a month for personal clothing allowance.

"We have created unnecessary positions within the sheriff's office, which are eating a lot of the funds which we could use to place deputies on the streets."

Although Mr. Blanchard has charged Sheriff Whittle with under-assigning resources to fight illegal drugs, Sheriff Whittle says his opponent is overemphasizing the problem for the campaign.

Mr. Blanchard said that if he is elected, he would increase the number of vice and narcotics officers from four to eight and restore the drug interdiction unit.

Both candidates are proponents of prevention programs in the county's schools.

Sheriff Whittle proposes expanding the Gang Resistance Education and Training, or GREAT, program from the county's middle schools into the high schools as a way to discuss gang and drug prevention with teens.

Mr. Blanchard said he would work closer with the campus police officers and the school system, especially to address drug use among teens.

Mr. Blanchard also said he has ideas to add onto the community policing efforts that Sheriff Whittle has made a significant focus of his office.

Those ideas include providing more crime statistics and prevention tips on the sheriff's office Web site and using phone message broadcasts in neighborhoods where incidents happen.

Given their varied backgrounds, it is no surprise that the two candidates differ on what best qualifies someone to be sheriff these days.

"We need somebody who's a leader that has good quality skills, that has different additional experience besides law enforcement experience," Mr. Blanchard said. "Today's modern sheriff isn't the guy that goes out there and arrests people - he needs to have law enforcement, public safety and business experience."

Sheriff Whittle, however, said he thinks holding the job for the past eight years will be enough to sway voters.

"What distinguishes me from my opponent is I have the proven leadership, I have the real experience," he said. "I don't think voters are going to elect someone that has no experience and no idea of what he's doing and how to do it."

Lewis Blanchard
Age: 39
Occupation: President of Executive Marketing Services
Education: Evans High School graduate, received Emergency Medical Technician certification from Aiken Technical College
Civic involvement: Member of First Baptist Church; member of Fraternal Order of Police, East Central Georgia Lodge; Columbia County School Business Partner; professional member of Future Business Leaders of America; member of Republican National Committee and Columbia County Republican Party
Family: Single

Clay Whittle
Age: 44
Occupation: Columbia County sheriff
Education: Richmond Academy graduate
Civic involvement: Member of Day Springs Baptist Church; National Sheriffs' Association, member of Georgia Sheriffs's Association and its training and standards committee, on Board of Directors for East Georgia Regional Police Academy; member of Columbia County Republican Party
Family: Wife, Bonnie, sons, Clayton, 11, Connor, 10

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at 868-1222, ext. 115 or vicky.eckenrode@augustachronicle.com.


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