Does DeKalb County need constables?

By Tyler Pruett

On Tuesday, Dekalb County voters of District 1 will head to the polls to conclude the special election to fill a vacancy left when the former constable, Kneely Pack, resigned due to being arrested on fraud charges. Grant Johnson, District 4 also resigned due to moving out of his elected district, leaving a second vacancy. This was decided during the primary elections due to there being no Democratic candidate participating in the race. Billy J. Whitt emerged the winner by a large margin of a three way primary. What’s ironic for Mr. Whitt and the winner of Tuesday’s election is that the position of constable will be up for election once again in 2016. This meaning that both must run for reelection after being in office for only a year if a challenger arises, which seems likely given that there were so many contestants in the special election. It’s also interesting to note that while these positions are widely sought, they offer little to no compensation or benefits.

Duties of a constable include serving papers, making arrests, assisting law enforcement and the fire department, as well as escorting weddings and funerals to name a few. Constables must also carry a firearm, but are not provided with the same training as police officers. It’s notable that in the District 4 primary, one candidate, Michael Hardeman had recently been charged with 1st degree theft, a felony, which precludes him from owning a firearm, much less carrying one. This is even more fascinating considering being armed is one of the few duties that a constable is obligated to. While the aforementioned responsibilities may sound beneficial to the public, most are optional and citizens who request these services must pay the constable a fee.

A special election with only one particular office being filled gives us a unique opportunity to gauge the public’s perceived benefit in having an elected constable. While turnout percentages in special elections during years without much political activity remain very low compared to normal elections years, voters will turn out in greater numbers to vote on a position that they feel has relevance to their daily lives. Turnout in the Districts 1 and 4 primaries were some of the lowest previously seen in Dekalb County. A mere 2.38% of registered voters turned out in District 1 and an even lower 0.85% in District 4. This means that out of a combined number of 19,769 voters in both districts, only 318 felt the need to vote. These elections also cost a large sum of money to Dekalb County taxpayers, with most effected not even living in the mentioned districts. The primary alone cost over $40,000.00 with costs rising to nearly $100,000.00 after the general election is concluded next week.

Before 2010, when vacancies were left due to resignations before the current term is complete, it was up to the Governor to appoint a new constable until a regular election can be held. However, due to laws passed that year that only applies to Dekalb County, a special election must be held if there is a year or more left in the term. This is how we could see two years in a row with an election for constables, adding further to the price tag. Some elected officials in our area are working to change the law, but just as importantly, citizens should ask themselves if these costs and controversy are justified by the benefit to the public. Decades ago, this position was crucial when police response times were light years behind current standards, and communications between dispatch and patrols were primitive. Also, due to much fewer law enforcement officers, the constable might be the only form of assistance someone might receive in a timely manner. With the costs of this election piling up, and the position seeming mostly irrelevant now, now is a good time to be asking this question.