Two sheriffs, Attorney General to decide if Jay Space can perform the duties of his office
Wednesday, June 12, 2002
By Don Lowery
for the Savannah Morning News
The ability of Effingham County Sheriff Jay Space to perform his duties is under scrutiny this week by a three-member committee appointed by Gov. Roy Barnes.
Committee members started talking to Effingham residents and officials Tuesday morning about Space's behavior since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last spring.
They are working out of an office at the Chatham County Sheriff's Department.
"We prepared a list of folks they might want to talk to, as requested by the governor's office," said Effingham County Administrator David Rutherford. "They will be working out of Chatham County until Thursday or Friday."
Last Wednesday, Barnes appointed Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison, Tift County Sheriff Gary Vowell and Attorney General Thurbert Baker to investigate allegations that MS and medication have rendered Space unable to perform his duties.
Space did not return telephone calls to discuss the matter Tuesday. Committee members were also unavailable.
Russ Willard, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's office, refused comment Tuesday, citing office policy regarding investigations.
The governor's action last week was prompted by requests from the Georgia Sheriffs' Association and the Effingham County Commission. It could lead to Space's suspension or removal from office.
Effingham officials expressed concerns about the sheriff's condition since hearing reports of strange behavior.
He took medical leave last spring after disclosing he had been diagnosed with MS and was taking medication for the disease. He returned to work last month.
Space is in the second year of his second four-year term. His term continues through 2004.
Residents, court officials and area lawmen allege Space at times appeared impaired and often staggered, struggling to speak coherently. They also allege he sometimes acted inappropriately.
The three-member committee is expected to view videotapes of traffic stops in Garden City last spring and Port Wentworth about six weeks ago. In the Garden City incident, officers said Space tested negative for alcohol, but was too impaired to drive.
In the second incident, a Port Wentworth officer stopped Space for speeding in May. An agitated Space allegedly snatched open the police cruiser's door and yelled obscenities at the officer.
Rutherford said the committee will also hear an audio recording of a May 21 Effingham County Commission meeting in which Space yelled at commissioners and acted inappropriately.
Earlier this year, commissioners offered to provide a driver for Space. He refused that offer and produced a letter from his physician saying he is able to drive and perform the functions of his job.
Commissioner Homer Lee Wallace said calling for the investigation of Space was one of the most difficult decisions he has faced in two decades in the county government.
"We reached out to help him earlier this year and suggested everything possible to come to an arrangement that would benefit everyone, but he just refused," Wallace said.
"I've known Jay for quite a few years and he has always been a calm, articulate professional. I never watched the (Garden City and Port Wentworth) police videos -- I didn't even want to see what was on the tape.
"I never would have believed it until I saw the way he acted at the (May 21) commission meeting," Wallace said. "That is not the Jay Space I used to know."
ABOUT THE PROCESS
According to the Gov. Roy Barnes' executive order, the committee will report its findings to the governor within 30 days. If the committee recommends it, Barnes can suspend the sheriff for 60 days and extend the suspension for an additional 30 days. The governor may also recommend that Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Joe Martin submit a petition in superior court, which is the only way Sheriff Space can be removed from office.
Effingham County Commissioners report hearing comments from residents about Sheriff Jay Space and the way he appeared in public. Some report Space sometimes staggered when he walked, had trouble talking and appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
At the Sheriff's Department Easter Egg Hunt for local children, Space appears unsteady on his feet, resulting in more questions.
Garden City police officers stop Space's personal car on April 13 after other motorists reported the Mercedes was being driven erratically. The sheriff admits he had been weaving, says he felt "a little dizzy" and asks for help in removing his wallet from his back pants pocket. Space tests negative for alcohol. He says he is suffering from a neurological condition. Police do not allow him to continue driving and a friend is called to the scene to assist Space.
County commissioners express concerns to Gov. Roy Barnes in a letter asking for an investigation concerning the sheriff's physical condition.
Commissioners read a newspaper report in which a spokesman for Space says he is suffering from multiple sclerosis and is being treated at an undisclosed medical facility.
Maj. Rick Daily, Space's chief deputy, informs commissioners that he has been appointed acting sheriff.
Space returns to work and a week later holds a news conference in which he says he is being treated for multiple sclerosis, is coping with the disease and intends to serve the remainder of his term, which expires in 2004.
Commissioners hear reports that Space has good days and bad days dealing with MS, and that he is often not in his office.
As commissioners went through the budget cycle, Space is absent from budget meetings. They say Space had attended the meetings in previous years to make sure his department received adequate funding.
Space and Daily meet with commissioners for a discussion concerning time-clock and schedule changes. Commissioners say Space was hostile toward them during the session.
Space is at fault in a traffic accident on Aug. 24 when he drove a county-owned 1999 Crown Victoria into the rear of a 1998 Ford Expedition on Ga. 21 near Smith Avenue in Garden City. The county vehicle sustained moderate damage, the other car slight damage and there were no injuries reported by the Georgia State Patrol trooper who investigated. The crash occurred while the Expedition was stopped in traffic.
Commissioners send word to Space that they want him to stay home, with full pay, until his condition improved. They offered to provide a county-paid driver for him.
Space is allegedly hostile toward the commissioners and County Clerk Sandra Andrews during Effingham County Day at the Capitol held Jan. 29 in Atlanta.
Commissioners Homer Lee Wallace and Gregg Howze meet with Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association in Atlanta to discuss the sheriff's behavior and the legal liability of the county government for his actions. They again offer to pay Space to stay home and to provide a driver.
Commissioners discuss their concerns about Space during a meeting with Tyson Stephens and Norris of the sheriffs' association, District Attorney Joe Martin and the county attorney.
Commissioners request a letter from Space's physician saying that he is physically and mentally able to drive a car and function as sheriff. Space reportedly agrees, but told county officials they have no authority over him or the sheriff's department.
Commissioners send a letter on April 5 to Stephens complaining that Space still has not provided the letter requested from his physician. Stephens responded with a letter to Space reminding him of the agreement.
Space was reportedly aggressive and verbally abusive to a Port Wentworth policeman who stopped him for speeding on April 23.
Space sends commissioners a letter from his physician on May 1 saying he is able to drive and perform his job.
Space was reportedly involved in at least three incidents on May 21 in which he acted inappropriately. Rincon officers said he was critical of their actions and acted strange when he happened upon an incident they were handling at a local medical office. During a break in a commission meeting in Springfield that evening, Space nearly caused a collision when he pulled his car into the path of another car on Laurel Street -- forcing the other driver to slam on brakes to avoid a crash. Several people standing nearby heard and saw the near-miss. Later, he returned to the commission meeting, interrupted the meeting and launched an angry tirade aimed at commissioners.
"Whenever the Governor determines that an investigation of a sheriff of this state should be made as a result of criminal charges, alleged misconduct in office, or alleged incapacity of the sheriff to perform the functions of his office, he shall appoint two sheriffs who are members of the Georgia Sheriffs Association who, along with the Attorney General, shall constitute a committee to conduct an investigation."
" If the committee recommends the suspension of the sheriff, the Governor shall be authorized to suspend the sheriff for a period of up to 60 days The Governor may extend the period of suspension for an additional 30 days. Upon such recommendation, the Governor shall also be authorized to request the district attorney of the county of the sheriff's residence to bring a removal petition against the sheriff based upon the evidence reported by the committee. The chief judge of the superior court of the county of the sheriff's residence shall appoint a person who meets the qualification for sheriffs to assume the duties of sheriff during any period of suspension."
WHAT IS MS
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, but the unpredictable physical and emotional effects can be lifelong. Primary symptoms are a direct result of demyelination -- the destruction of myelin, the fatty sheath that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers in the central nervous system. This impairs transmission of nerve impulses to muscles and other organs.
SYMPTOMS OF MS
The initial symptoms of MS are most often difficulty in walking, abnormal sensations such as numbness or "pins and needles," and pain and loss of vision caused by optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve. Less common initial symptoms may include tremor, incoordination, slurred speech, sudden onset of paralysis similar to a stroke and a decline in cognitive function, the ability to think, reason and remember.
Source: The National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Copyright 2002 Savannah Morning News