The two candidates for the office of Oconee County Sheriff debated local concerns and compared service records during a held at Thursday night.
, who is seeking re-election to a , and , who serves as a sergeant for the , faced off on issues such as teenage drug use, upcoming development in Oconee County, and managing cost-effective offices.
The candidates, both Republicans, touted their years of experience in law enforcement as proof of their viability.
Berry said his 35 years in law enforcement, including 20 years as sheriff, equip him best to manage deputies and crime in the county. During that time, he said he has implemented systems to increase sex crime convictions, attempted to increase law enforcement visibility and communication through social media and handled increased crime levels resulting from development.
"I have served you faithfully, I have served you well, and I have been a leader in Oconee County," Berry said. "I am 53 years old. I am in the prime of life. I am ready to give you another four years of service and I am committed to serving you in Oconee County."
Berry also indicated his opponent's jurisdiction over Snellville's comparatively smaller geographic size does not give Downs the experience to handle Oconee County.
"Snellville has 10.4 square miles. We have 186," Berry said.
Downs, rebutted Berry's claim by saying Snellville's heavy traffic flow and high daytime population equips him adequately. During his time as a detective corporal for Snellville, Downs has investigated murders, child molestation cases and has arrested members of Mexican Drug Cartels.
"I serve in a city with 20,000 residents. There’s 32,000 residents in Oconee County," he said. "[Snellville has] a daytime population of 75,000 people and a daily traffic count on highway 78 and US 128 of a 150,000 cars a day. We manage a 132 vehicle accidents a month. That’s almost five a day. I can promise you one thing as your sheriff. You won’t wait on the side of the road waiting for Georgia State Patrol. Our deputies will work to help you."
An initial discussion of the possibility that the upcoming could mean an increase in migrant workers turned quickly to how both candidates would handle expected growth in the county.
Downs said Berry would be ill-equipped to handle the increase in shopping centers, traffic and crime that is projected.
"As far as Caterpillar goes, and the development that's going to bring to Oconee County, those are going to bring issues that the Sheriff has never had to face," Downs said. "Those are things I have to deal with on a daily basis. We have to come up with ways to deal with shoplifting and carjackings and other types of crime that you see increased when you increase your shopping units."
Berry replied by saying he has handled crime stemming from growth in the county throughout his twenty years in office. Since he took office in 1993, the number of deputies employed has nearly doubled. Berry also lobbied for and oversaw the construction of a new jail to address the rising number of inmates.
"When I took office, there was one store built across from that Golden Pantry. Epps Bridge Road was a two-lane road that didn’t have a store on it," Berry said. "I’ve been here for the growth of Oconee County. There were 17,000 people in Oconee County when I took office. There’s 32,000 now. I’ve been keeping you safe at the Epps Bridge Shopping Center for years. Ever since was built, I’ve watched that area grow up. This isn’t new to me. This is something I’ve lived with in Oconee County."
Close to Home — Regarding Loyalty to Oconee
Both candidates navigated concerns about their loyalty to and records outside of Oconee.
Berry, who began his career in Norcross, said he has spent much of his "adult career" in Oconee County and came here because he wanted to be "involved in Oconee County."
"There’s a lot of people in this room that moved to Oconee County by choice and that stayed here by choice," Berry said. "I’m sorry my daddy didn’t move here and I didn’t have the fortunate opportunity to be born here. I’m here because I want to be here. I’ve given my adult service to Oconee County. I’ve not worked anywhere else. I have served and lived in Oconee County. I made that choice. I came here because I want to be here and I stayed here because I want to be here."
Downs, who was born and raised in Oconee, has worked with several other law enforcement agencies, including work as a patrol officer in Barrow County and as a lieutenant for the Jefferson Police Department. Downs said he sought employment outside of his home county to better equip him for his aspirations in Oconee.
"I chose to go off and work in other places so I could gain the the knowledge and experience it takes to come back and lead in Oconee County," Downs said. "I can submit to everyone in this audience that I have worked as a patrol officer in a zone car, which I would submit that my opponent had never done."
That's not true, according to Berry, who said he has worked multiple law enforcement jobs during his career.
"I’ve worked in the patrol car. I’ve worked midnight shift. I worked in the jail – in the city of Norcross. I started washing police cars when I was 15 years old and the city would let me when I got off the school bus," Berry said. "I have done every job. I’m the only one sitting in this room right now that had a case go to trial and receive the death penalty where the penalty was actually carried out. And I witnessed that. I’ve done all these things and more."
Downs closed by addressing an audience member's question over possible cuts to jail personnel. He promised no members of the Sheriff's Office, save Berry, would lose their jobs under him if elected.
"I can promise each of you – whether or not you’re civilian, whether or not your jail deputy, whether you are a deputy sheriff or investigator - you will not lose your job, period," Downs said. "The only man who will lose his job is the man sitting to my left on July 31."
Berry responded: "On July 31, I will still be sheriff of Oconee County."
Correction: Trey Downs is now a Sergeant with the Snellville Police Department. The article has been changed.