Mayor of Watkinsville asks to secede from Western judicial circuit

The Mayor of Watkinsville, Bob Smith, wrote an open letter to his state representatives asking for a new judicial circuit to be created solely for Oconee County.

This new circuit would be called the “Oconee North Circuit” and would be created this year 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.

Oconee county is currently in the Western judicial circuit, which it shares with Athens-Clarke County.

The proposed new circuit would be the smallest in Georgia by population and the third smallest by land area. The remaining area of the Western Circuit would then become the smallest by land area. (Source: US Census Bureau)

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 was 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 feels 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 in less than a week, Smith must have felt some urgency to make this request before the full budget impact was known.

Not mentioned in Smiths’ letter is the new District Attorney of the Western Judicial Circuit, Deborah Gonzalez. She issued a memo detailing 40 policy changes for her office, which became effective on January 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 is a Republican, and discontent with Gonzalez’s recent victory could have factored into his request.

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