The second meeting of the two candidates for Bradley County sheriff provided more information on the issues than the previous one, but still provided some fireworks moments as the tension between the candidates remained obvious.
Sheriff Jim Ruth and state Rep. Eric Watson fielded questions about postelection personnel changes, jail space, the proposed workhouse and animal control.
Moderator Jim Logan asked about the changes seen in the Sheriff’s Office over the years, especially after a new sheriff is elected.
Ruth said he had asked for a better plan than the “equal protection plan” he said is currently in place.
“It protects the deputies from the day a sheriff is elected,” he said. “It doesn’t protect your higher-ranking people and I see a great need for protecting our higher-ranking people because they are educated and have worked there for years and they need that protection.”
Watson repeated his assertion there had been politically motivated demotions and dismissals since Ruth took office.
He then spoke of helping to create a “career service plan” for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation while serving in the state Legislature.
“We’re going to do the same thing for our Sheriff’s Office, but it has to start from the top to the bottom,” Watson said. “There are great officers over there.”
Ruth said the firings Watson referred to took place under the previous administration.
Watson replied saying one officer had filed a lawsuit, but was interrupted by Ruth disputing Watson’s statement.
“The record speaks for itself,” Watson said. “We have to retain those people. How do we have a professional department when over 50 percent have left that department — been forced out?”
Ruth said there has always been a high turnover number in the BCSO.
He cited a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which stated a police officer’s job “is the 10th worst job in the country.”
“And, Bradley County does not pay its officers much besides medium pay,” he said. “To say any [departures] were done politically was totally false.
“We fired 12 people [for just cause] and not 100 like you’re being told around here, and he’s one of them,” Ruth said referring to Watson.
The remark brought the first spontaneous reaction from an audience which had been asked to refrain from such audible approval or disapproval.
Watson came back to the podium saying, “That’s exactly why we’re going to beat ’em on May 6 — that kind of politics.”
That remark brought another loud response from the crowd.
Logan asked the audience to refrain from such responses or the forum would end and asked the candidates to encourage their supporters to heed the instructions.
The candidates were then asked about the problems of jail capacity.
“The way of the future for misdemeanor violators is the workhouse,” Watson said. “I support that. Make those criminals pay their own way for that workhouse and that bed. As sheriff, I’ll support the County Commission and won’t work against it.”
He said he had attended the last workhouse committee meeting and no one from the BCSO was represented.
Watson also said as to whose control the workhouse fell under — the sheriff or the county mayor — “it’s up to County Commission. They know what’s best for the county.”
Ruth said he is “all for the workhouse.”
“My concern is wondering if there are any alternatives to it,” he said.
Ruth said the overcrowding at the jail was mainly due to probation violations and “people sitting in our jail for a month before they have a hearing.”
“Jail overcrowding has always been a problem and is a problem across the state,” Ruth said.
He said it does not matter to him whose jurisdiction the workhouse falls under.
“I hope they know what they’re getting into, because there is so much about running a jail with inmates. We’re going to have to be involved with it anyway. There’s a lot to consider — medical and food — we’ll have to provide from our jail, more than likely,” Ruth said.
The idea of consolidating the law enforcement agencies was approached with the candidates.
“I’m all for consolidated services ... if they put the sheriff in charge,” Ruth said. “The sheriff is the constitutional officer of law enforcement in the county.”
Watson said it would be the decision of the City Council, County Commission and a referendum.
“I would stand by the people,” Watson said. “You can study it all you want to. Whatever is the most efficient and saves the cost for the taxpayers of Bradley County.”
Animal control, a recent controversy for the county government, was also addressed by the candidates.
“My vision for the sheriff’s department is to let inmates take an active role (taking care of animals) and having two officers working to respond to calls,” Watson said. “I think the Commission paid the city of Cleveland $500,000 to $600,000 for that contract. I think we could do it for $150,000.”
Ruth said the department “uses inmates whenever we can.”
“If the county is willing to hire the right officers, buy the right equipment and vehicles and get into the dog business, that’s great. I’d be all for it,” he said.
Ruth said unless there are people with the proper training and equipment available, “we just can’t get into that right now.”