Local News

April 19, 2014

Murray magistrate court candidates talk money, openness

CHATSWORTH — Murray County Chief Magistrate Gale Buckner describes herself as a “go-getter” and “problem-solver” who has worked hard to restore the public’s faith in the court since her predecessor resigned under pressure about two years ago.

Former part-time magistrate Dwayne Hooper says he’s better qualified for the job, would offer more of an “open door policy,” and wouldn’t spend public dollars on things that aren’t needed.

Both candidates are campaigning for the chief magistrate position in the May 20 nonpartisan election. Early voting begins Monday, April 28.

The four Superior Court judges in the Conasauga Judicial Circuit, which covers Murray and Whitfield counties, appointed Buckner to the chief magistrate position after an interview process to replace former judge Bryant Cochran who resigned in the midst of an ethics and criminal investigation. He has not been charged, but he is a subject in an ongoing federal investigation into whether he played a part in the false arrest of a woman who claims he targeted her because she refused his sexual advances, and he is also fighting a civil lawsuit claiming inappropriate sexual advances toward at least one employee created a hostile work environment. Cochran has denied any wrongdoing.

During a political forum last week sponsored by the Murray County Republican Party, the two candidates, and others running for office in Murray County spoke to a couple hundred people gathered at the Murray County Recreation Center.

Hooper, whose term expired shortly after Buckner took office, said his 22 years of experience as a judge — though not the chief — in the magistrate office makes him the most qualified for the position. Buckner has worked in a variety of jobs, including spending 24 years with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and seven years on the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Hooper questioned what he said was $229,000 in construction costs to move the magistrate offices from their location at the Murray County Annex to a newly renovated portion of the Murray County jail. Buckner said Hooper’s figures were off.

County Finance Director Tommy Parker said moving and renovating the new magistrate court offices cost about $139,000, with all of it coming from a 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). He said about $229,000 has been spent on the court plus in various county departments for other smaller items like copier machines and lawn mowers.

Hooper said the money still could have been better spent.

“Did we need more room in the magistrate court? We were crowded. We could have used more room,” he said. “But when I think of the other offices, we weren’t as bad off as they were ... Was it necessary? I don’t think so. Could we afford it? Absolutely not.”

Buckner said her office is 3 percent under budget so far this year. She said she disagrees that she doesn’t have an “open door policy.”

“There is no one that comes in that has legitimate business with this court or this office that we don’t find plenty of time to help,” she said. “What has stopped under my watch is the tradition that has been held in this office that people could come here and stay half the day and kick their feet up on the desk and make it a social gathering.”

Hooper also questioned Buckner’s portrayal of how she handled $300,000 that stayed in the court’s office and should have been distributed to various beneficiaries. Within a year of taking office, Buckner said she discovered the money sitting in a bank account for no immediately apparent reason. She said most counties of Murray’s size would have no more than $50,000 at one time waiting to be doled out. An audit later found most of the money was in undistributed fees that belonged to Murray County government.

Hooper said Buckner didn’t “find” that money because it was never lost or misplaced to begin with. He said he knew about the money as did Cochran, the county commissioner and others. He said Buckner simply did some of the same things he would have done as chief magistrate, including calling for the audit to determine how to disperse the funds.

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