There is a new sheriff in town in Blakely and Early County, a phrase that has not been uttered in this community in almost three decades.
William "Fats" Price's task of following Jimmie Murkerson in this most important position is one of monumental difficulty due to uncommon circumstances. Mr. Price is an African American, the first top lawman of his race to be elected in Early County's history. "Firsts" always represent challenge.
He succeeds a man of immeasurable courage, competence and cordiality. Jimmie Murkerson led the sheriff's office in this southwest corner of Georgia with a firm but even hand and a winning smile. He and former Blakely Police Chief Charles Middleton in the mid-1990s guided the city and county to a consolidation of law enforcement services that stands today as a model for all of Georgia. The Early County News reports it as "still the only fully consolidated city-county law enforcement agency in the state."
In recent years Jimmie Murkerson was taken down with a serious, rare disease that left him hospitalized in Atlanta and elsewhere for months upon months. While he was battling and overcoming his illness, the sheriff's office staff never wavered in doing its duty in an exemplary fashion -- a testament to the leadership that Jimmie had provided all these years.
All residents of Early County will pull for Fats Price to get the job done in a fair and honest manner. They will be watching closely to see how he measures up to the legacy left by his predecessor. Mr. Price told the Early County News, "The only thing that changes is that we have a new sheriff. The laws will be the same."
Mr. Price is a veteran deputy sheriff. He recently completed the state's training course for new sheriffs, a 160-hour curriculum that included classroom instruction, the state constitution and the Official Code of Georgia specifying many duties of the chief lawman. State and national experts lectured the sheriffs-elect on the latest issues concerning jails, civil procedure, personnel and liability issues. He should be ready for the job.
Mr. Price didn't represent the only "first" recorded in Early County's government leadership ranks as 2013 unfolded. June A. Merritt has taken the reins as chairwoman of the Early County Commission, the first female elected to this key position in Early County government.
Merritt is no newcomer to the leadership ranks. She ran the local office of the Georgia Department of Family and Children's Service from 1980 to 2001. Before that she was a caseworker and office supervisor. In 1996, she was DFACS' Director of the Year for the whole state. She brings a wealth of education to her new position -- a Bachelor's in Home Economics from the University of Georgia and a Master's in Social Work with an emphasis on policy, planning and administration.
"We're a community that pulls together. Our past leaders in business, industry, and government have never allowed short-term differences to get in the way of our long-term goals to work together for the betterment of our area," Merritt said during the rugged but successful campaign.
One longtime Blakely businessman and civic leader predicted to me that June Merritt will excel in her new job like few before her. She certainly has the right credentials and background to make him a prophet.
She and Mr. Price are saying the right things as this new era of leadership in Early County government begins. Their well-wishers are numerous.
Mac Gordon is a retired reporter who lives near Blakely and writes an occasional opinion column for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at macmarygordongmail.com.