In what could best be described as a gentlemen's discussion, the five candidates — Jeff Holcomb, Gary Sisk, Larry Black, Mike Helton and Ben Scott — gave the audience of several hundred gathered at the Colonnade on the evening of July 28 a taste of just how much alike they are.
Out of the 10 questions asked the forum, it appeared that the five had all agreed on what the answers would be beforehand. To most of the audience, it all came down to a matter of personal choice during the straw poll held afterwards. The results of that polling were to be revealed on WGOW Talk Radio's Live and Local show between one and four o'clock on Friday, July 29.
The show was hosted by the forum's moderator, Brian Joyce.
Candidate Jeff Holcomb, a life-long resident of Catoosa County, touted his strict adherence to the Republican Party line throughout the questioning, while candidate Larry Black told the audience that he was a convert to the party, switching from a Democrat in 2000.
Candidates Mike Helton, Ben Scott and Gary Sisk all professed to be life-long members of the GOP.
The most divide came when a question was asked concerning the candidates' pro or con stance on Georgia's open and concealed gun-carry law. While most of the candidates were for both open and concealed carry with extra training involved, Black seemed hesitant to support open carry, saying, "I'm not comfortable with open carry." He did also say that, "We don't mind if good people have guns."
Guns were also the issue of another question. All questions were submitted beforehand by county residents.
When asked if they would enforce a federal law that violated the Constitution and called for the confiscation of legal firearms from citizens, Black and Scott agreed they would step aside and have federal agents carry out the confiscation.
Both Sisk and Holcomb said they would not enforce it, nor defer to federal agents.
Helton said, "No, I would not enforce that or defer to federal agents. However, I would find it strange that the federal government would expect our assistance there but not with the immigration law," receiving a rare round of applause from the audience.
Holcomb said, "We are sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. Something like this is the beginning of a slippery slope."
The candidates also agreed with Georgia's new Criminal Justice Reform Act, which gives more latitude in dealing with some offenders. Scott stated, "You can't lock everyone up forever, there is just not enough jail space. We need more sentencing options and to take a look and see who deserves a second chance."
Sisk saw it as an excellent bill while saying that here in Catoosa County there has been a three percent rise in jail occupancy over the past five years.
Black stated it was "not that simple," although he supported it as a drug enforcement agency commander.
When asked about keeping school resource officers on the job, again, all five candidates agreed that this would be a priority for their administration.
When asked why they were running as a Republican, all five men were of the opinion that the party views best reflected their own beliefs. Holcomb admitted, he was a Republican “when Republican wasn't cool," drawing a round of laughter from those in the attendance.
Questioned about the scope of duties of the sheriff's office, all five gave the appearance that they had a good grasp of what would be required of them, while Scott expanded his answer to include moral responsibilities as well as those covered by law and statute.
All five candidates had a workable vision for their administration. Most had to do with proactive policing, while Scott said he would like to leave it better than he found it and to heal the divide in the community over the view of the department.
Helton was concerned with how to get more out of the available resources, saying, "We need to maximize our resources at every level and to know the heartbeat of our community." He later touted his experience as county manager to accomplish this.
Black said he would take a very active role in drug enforcement and open a sheriff's sub-station on the west side of the county.
Sisk said he would continue the program of community-oriented policing, as well as all current services offered by the department, such as senior welfare checks.
"I would be more proactive than reactive," said Holcomb.
Regardless of which man wins, citizens can expect to be asked to be more involved with the sheriff's office. The idea of a Citizen's Academy came up universally as a desire.
Sisk stated, "You need nosy neighbors," describing how citizen involvement could help solve crimes.
While the budget was seen mostly as a lot of fixed costs, each man vowed to do a line-by-line review to see where cuts might be made. Scott pledged to align the budget with the priorities of the department, while Black was the only candidate to say he would request and justify any extra dollars required to support the department, seeming to infer even if this meant a tax hike.
Sisk said he would like to set in place a five-year plan to reduce the budget, although it might require some additional funding in the beginning. Helton, Scott, Sisk and Holcomb were on record saying they would not support a tax increase.