Walker County Nick Smith has become the Energizer Bunny of public officials, creating programs, hiring officials and taking action like FDR creating the New Deal in his 100 days. His Facebook pages have something new seemingly every day.
Last Friday, he got in two drug raids in one morning, showed me the Sipsey substation in progress, invited me to lunch, that afternoon sat down for an interview, and then proceeded to raid an electronic bingo hall. Six hours later, I got back to the office and they were already planned for the day. Thankfully, I was scheduled for Saturday, so I posted photos Friday night and wrote like mad on Saturday (plus dealt with the obits) for the Sunday edition.
(By the way, for the sake of space for the focused topic, I will say for now I saw some comments on the Friday night photo postings, which together got like 100,000 people viewing on Facebook. I could have done better in a few actions along the way in my hurry, due in part to the quantity, the exhaustion and trying to post it at the apartment on mobile devices. I do apologize, as many of you made some very good points, and I’ll try to do better next time.)
Frankly, it is good to see Smith, or any new official, come in and be proactive. He is engaged and in the field, apparently, although he mentions freely what others have done in the department. The substations look to be great new additions using existing buildings and not costing that much money. Some of his drug addiction programs got the attention of state officials a few days ago at a major conferences in Florence. And I think the drug task force action sounds on paper like it would get agents working 24/7, and would involved law enforcement from across the county.
(For that matter, let me go down a side path here to back up District Attorney Bill Adair on the idea of a major crime unit to deal with serious situations anywhere in the county, so that the rural areas are getting the same countywide attention in any major crime. Having gone through the downtown Hamilton shooting spree a few years ago, I can also tell you that when something major like that happens — and it can happen here — you will need everybody and their kid brother working together, so you might as well organize right now for effective communication and organization. That is not favoring one agency or another — it will take everyone. Murders and armed robberies of any type deserve the same treatment, without egos or classification.)
Something that relieved me at the end of last week was the unified approach toward the electronic bingo halls in the county. It is quickly becoming apparent that Jefferson County is getting the same reputation Walker County had a decade ago about the proliferation of such places, despite the fact that nothing has changed on the law or court rulings. The Attorney General’s Office has sent stern letters to Jefferson County about how they are not enforcing the law, apparently.
However, Carbon Hill officials have been concerned for a while, seeking help from Smith, who in turn visited the Attorney General’s Office and asked for a briefing. Then he and Carbon Hill Police Chief Eric House visited the bingo halls there, and most said they would close. However, signs popped up saying they were closing but, oh, go see one at Highway 5 and Brakefield Dairy Road.
Apparently, that little trick was the point the sheriff decided not to be nice, and got a search warrant (which I’ve seen). I was a little shocked, as some of you were, that they decided to break down the doors (and not so easily; it took three men over time) when the place was unexpectedly closed. It was strange to see officers break into a closed business with a search warrant. I’ve not had much time to research but I gathered an argument can be made the search warrant might be enough; officials that day said it was. The posted hours indicated it would open at 3 p.m. until whenever, so it should have been open for 30 minutes by then.
Of course, the business had 40 machines and a sign saying they paid out in gift cards. That wasn’t a good sign for the business in terms of gaining sympathy.
In the end, Walker County came out looking proactive in the matter, and Adair and the attorney general said they backed the sheriff. We came out looking much better than Jefferson County. For those who wailed on Facebook that they were ignoring other major crime, well, not all crime happens at once, and I’m sure other deputies were on the road. I don’t think law enforcement operations were hampered that day at all. And, as Smith said, if someone wants to make the games legal, that’s fine. Pass a new law or an amendment. That’s all you’ve got to do. If everyone would concentrate on that instead of getting onto law enforcement for doing their job, the whole matter would be resolved quicker. I don’t care for electronic bingo or the lottery, but I imagine one day we will see them — after the legislators deal with it, not before.
If there is one thing I could say of concern at this time about Smith, I would note his concern about the past. Mind you, he has a point that he is trying to move on and yet having the clean up and repair the jail. If the jail had been better maintained, using discretionary funds, it might not have to require $900,000 or whatever to make repairs. A list of items out on order should also have been provided, so that he doesn’t have to be surprised by washer machines arriving, with a bill that is 10 times the normal amount found on the internet.
As a result, Smith called us to the jail the middle of last week and talked about the bills coming in from the “last administration.” (In other words, it is not certain who to blame for some of this, whether it was the top, near top or the middle. Current county officials try to be careful because I think they don’t know who is responsible really for some of this.) This is not the first time I’ve heard this.
But on reflection, I would say after two months county officials have made their point that they are not responsible of some actions of the past. Yes, they have bills still coming in, but they will deal with them. With the Fiscal 2020 budget starting Oct. 1, there will be an entirely clean slate, although really I would expect by mid-summer there will be a much smaller overlap of problems to be perceived from the previous administration.
As such, I think it would be best to leave out publicly raising blame for former officials, even nameless. We can just as easily talk about, as Walker County Commission members did, the financial mess they got into thanks to a prior commission arranging for bond payments to be kicked down the road. Now, we are hearing about the previous sheriff staff and what they did or did not do.
Well, with all due respect and understanding, I think it is time to stop that talk — unless something unexpectedly criminal is found, which no one has even hinted at. We get it, and it is time to move on to solutions. Many of those nameless people in the past are still with us on the bond issue, and we sure know the sheriff’s people no longer there are with us. There were also many good things they did, and they may have had reasons for doing what we are complaining about now, good and bad. They are still members of our community, good people who still contribute to our county, and we have to respect them and get along with them. I think now that the point has been made, we need to move on after two months, as there are many good points to make about the work being done now. The focus should now be on the current sheriff and his staff, and that will certainly give us plenty to talk about.