McDONOUGH — Henry County is considering moving its court facilities to a new site near the jail, and the city of McDonough is not happy about it.
According to county officials, the new site could be one possibility to address court overcrowding and the county’s lack of space to conduct operations.
A release, sent out by the county in May, revealed that District 2 Commissioner Dee Clemmons is advocating for a master plan that would build judicial space near the jail and move the county administrative offices to the courthouse on the McDonough Square.
“Safety is first and money is second, but both are important, and as our county grows, the need continues to grow,” Clemmons said in the release. “Years ago, the county purchased land knowing that the continuing growth of Henry County would bring a need for more facilities and more space. As an elected board, we can’t continue to simply maintain our services for today. We have to think five, 10, 20 years out to ensure that Henry County stays a safe, economically viable and highly desired place to live and do business.”
June Wood, chairperson of the Board of Commissioners, said in May that something had to be done with the Judicial Center.
“We’ve heard proposals, discussions and concerns about expanding the Judicial Center in its current location or exchanging the Judicial Center with the Henry County Administration location, so I look forward to the Board of Commissioners’ final discussion and vote on what’s best for our Judicial Center now and into the future.”
Clemmons said that while she had heard negative comments about relocating staff, there would be a secondary benefit of moving judicial staff closer to the jail and county government administrative employees to the courthouse, which she said would result in a revitalization of the McDonough Square and downtown area.
“Change can be difficult at first, but we as elected officials sometimes need to make tough decisions in the best interest of our county and our citizens to ensure that our future is safe, secure and vibrant,” Clemmons said. “We need to make those decisions now to facilitate smart growth and be prepared for a steadily increasing population.”
Keith McBrayer, Henry County sheriff, said the move would potentially take care of a security concern involving the transport of nearly 5,000 inmates a year from the jail to the McDonough Square, sitting in traffic at times.
“I think what some people don’t realize is that we transport an average of 40 to 50 inmates a day to the McDonough Square, which takes many deputies and a great deal of planning and effort,” McBrayer said in May. “Security is always a primary concern and I think any sheriff would tell you that they would rather have the courts close to their jail.”
Cheri Hobson-Matthews, Henry County manager, told the Herald at Thursday’s McDonough City Council meeting meeting that she did not want to comment on the matter since the Board of Commissioners had not yet taken an official position.
McDonough City Council opposed to new court siteThe McDonough City Council expressed its opposition on Thursday to the new facility in the form of a potential referendum that would go on the ballot.
Those discussions centered around a proposed non-binding referendum in November asking for city residents’ opinions on whether or not they would like to see the court and the associated offices stay in McDonough or move to a new location near the Henry County jail.
The proposal passed with a 4-3 vote, with Sandra Vincent, Rufus Stewart and Kamali Varner voting against the referendum, but the three made it clear both during the meeting and after the meeting ended that their opposition to the referendum did not mean they were opposed to keeping the courthouse on the McDonough Square.
Instead, Varner questioned the necessity of the referendum, considering the referendum would be non-binding in nature.
“If this is placed on the ballot, what leverage does this give the city?” Varner asked. “The county’s going to move forward. It’s their decision. Why are we putting this on the ballot?”
Varner also expressed concern about the cost associated with putting a referendum on the ballot, specifically concerning the non-binding nature of the vote. However, City Attorney Jim Elliott indicated that since the city would hold a general election at the same time, where several seats on the City Council, including an at-large seat, were up for grabs, cost was not an issue.
“So instead of asking for three questions for three different seats, we’re just adding a fourth question, right?” said Councilman Craig Elrod.
“That’s right,” Elliott said.
Stewart and Vincent, meanwhile, indicated they would rather engage in dialogue with the county before putting some type of referendum on the ballot, as Vincent said, it risked damaging the city’s relationship with the county.
“Right now, we are taking a polarizing position,” Vincent said. “It’s going to be a political hotbox. A better approach, and this is just me saying this, would be to have conversations with the county relative to our concerns. Once these battles start, then there are casualties in the process. A good relationship is key between McDonough and Henry County. If we all fall out over a vote that doesn’t mean anything, at the end of the day, it’s broken relationships.”