The mayor of Watkinsville, Bob Smith, wrote an open letter to state legislators last week asking for a new judicial circuit to be created solely for Oconee County.
Oconee County is currently in the Western Circuit, which it shares with Athens-Clarke County. The new circuit would be called the “Oconee North Circuit” if approved by the Georgia legislature. It would be one of the smallest circuits in Georgia by land area; most judicial circuits in Georgia span multiple counties. Similarly sized circuits, such as the one serving Clayton County, typically have a much larger population.
Smith’s stated reasoning for this change is to reduce the expense of a new county administration building being constructed at the intersection of Macon Highway and Georgia Highway 15. The current courthouse may be sufficient for Oconee County’s needs if the new circuit is created, since it would have a smaller caseload. This would mean “substantial savings” and a “win for the taxpayers of Oconee County,” Smith wrote.
Smith did not quantify the savings he believes taxpayers would receive by constructing a smaller administration building. He also did not account for the additional expense of new salaries, such as for judges and a new district attorney’s office, and for other expenses that would arise during such a change.
With the 2021 legislative session starting this week, Smith must have felt some urgency to make this request before the full budget impact was known.Not mentioned in Smith’s letter is the new district attorney of the Western Judicial Circuit, Deborah Gonzalez, who issued the aforementioned memo detailing 40 policy changes that became effective on Jan. 1, her first day as district attorney. Her memo was not well-received by members of the Athens-Clarke County Republican party or by others who fear rising crime rates and favor a punitive approach to criminal justice. Smith, a former state representative, is a Republican, and discontent with Gonzalez’s recent victory could have factored into his request.
This story originally appeared at Athens Politics Nerd.
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