WTOC Investigates: Campaign of Contradictions

WTOC Investigates: Campaign of Contradictions

BRYAN CO., GA (WTOC) - Ask anyone who's done it and they'll likely tell you running a political campaign can be an exercise in restraint.

Candidates are constantly the targets for all kinds of criticism, accusations and rumors. Some are true and many are not.

Which brings us to the Sheriff's race in Bryan County.

The supporters of one candidate reached out to me about what they considered a double standard that could in fact be violating the very standards of political conduct in the county. And it all started when someone saw a sign.

On a Monday morning late last month, Bonnie Shuman's surveillance camera, outside her Ellabell business picked up this, what she, and now several others insist was a county deputy, in a Sheriff's pick-up, planting a sheriff's re-election campaign sign. Shuman is the sister of the Sheriff's opponent, but says that's not what really bothered her.

"The political signs, they're everywhere," Shuman said. "Everybody's got them. But when you use county personnel in county vehicles, to put your political signs out, I'm having an issue with that.  And like I said, it could have been the dog catcher running. I don't care."

And she would not have cared that a county deputy in a county vehicle, presumably on county time was spending that time on the Sheriff's campaign. That is until she, and dozens of others here in Bryan County considered what just happened to a senior deputy who expressed his opinion about the sheriff's race to another county employee.

Cpl. Randy Fields was immediately stripped of his badge, gun and car, and sent to work at the jail by Sheriff Clyde Smith for politicking. Fields chose to resign instead and left a bit of a firestorm in his wake.

In his resignation letter, Fields reminds the Sheriff political speech is protected by the first amendment.  We'll come back to that in just a moment.  But, Smith, "gladly" accepted his resignation.

"I never, never once put a sign in the ground," Fields insisted. "I never once put anything on Facebook. Like I said, if somebody asked me a question, I answered it. I gave them my opinion. Now that this is over, he's got deputies that still work for him with his signs in the yard."

Is that really a violation?

We checked the Ordinance on Bryan County employees politicking for local candidates and it's really quite clear.  Chapter 5, Article 10; 
"…No county employee in the classified service shall actively advocate or oppose the candidacy of any individual for nomination or election to any county office."

Those are the exact words from the County's own website. Interestingly enough, the day after we started asking questions about it,  that chapter on the county's website became locked to outside viewers.

You can see the ordinance below:

Probably just a coincidence?

It is no coincidence one of the county's most decorated deputies is now looking for work.

"Not to toot my own horn, but I'm one of the most productive deputies in Bryan County," says Fields.  "I'm FTO up here and train half the new people coming into Bryan County. So, if that's not enough to show you that it's done out of anger, you know, what is?"

Fields resume does include more than two dozen awards and citations from the same office that let him go so easily. His rise above bitterness over what he considers a forced resignation will take time. But he is convinced fairness is not in the campaign playbook for this sheriff.

We were directed to the homes of no fewer than for county employees pushing for the re-election of Clyde Smith against Article 10 of the County ordinance. This is the home of a sheriff's captain.  Another Captain at the sheriff's office. And this is the home of a Bryan County deputy and his wife, the clerk of Superior Court.

After seeing our cameras had focused on his home, that deputy posted this on Facebook: pictures of a dozen more Smith campaign signs and an invitation to WTOC to come back to see this very public support of his candidate for sheriff. So, we came back to see that support.  Sure enough, the Sheriff Smith signs line the property.

"Why is it not fair for me to have an opinion, but it's ok for your people to actually politic? You know, hang signs on your walls or signs in your yards. And your deputies off duty knocking on doors asking it they can put sings in your yard. That's politicking," said Fields.

That's exercising one's constitutional rights, Smith told me. Remember, that's the same reasoning Fields used in his resignation letter, which was rejected by the Sheriff.

Still, Smith was more than happy to set the record straight on this issue. While he would not gr ant us a formal interview, Smith ran through a whole list of reasons why his deputies could personally campaign for his re-election, including the notion that as an elected official also considered a constitutional officer, the ordinance doesn't apply to him or his deputies.

Or that the signs we're seeing could belong to other people living the house. The Sheriff also told me he believe the County Commission will do away with that ordinance anyway. Another defense, he had more than 500 signs out there and couldn't possibly keep track of all of them. And finally, these officers are just exercising their First Amendment right, a right Fields was apparently denied.

"I would encourage that that if they feel that bad that I have done something wrong, please file suit against me," Smith told me.

That's unlikely.

I asked Shuman what does it really matter that a few county employees have put signs in their own yards despite what the ordinance might say is legal?

"What makes them better than anybody else?" she sharply responded. "If you're going to do it for one, do it for all. Enforce the rules. If you're not going to enforce them, don't have them."

The county ordinance prohibiting county employees from participating in county elections has been around for 20 years now.  Most in Bryan County will tell you that ordinance has been ignored for 20 years now.

And it will likely continue to be ignored as long as voters continue to ignore the "signs".

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