New commissioners challenge power structure in Douglas County

On his 71st birthday, retired Douglas County Sheriff Phil Miller took his place on the Board of Commissioners dais, looked out at a somewhat angry crowd, and wondered what he had just done.

"I just couldn't say no," he told the FOX 5 I-Team.

Gov. Brian Kemp asked Miller to take over the chair of the Douglas County Commission in the wake of an alleged bid rigging scandal that has cost—at least temporarily - two Democratic commissioners their jobs.

Dr. Romona Jackson Jones, Commissioner Henry Mitchell and three others are accused of illegally steering a cleaning contract to a political supporter who lived in Mitchell’s district.

All five deny the charges.

Phil Miller celebrated his 71st birthday by chairing his first commission meeting. Not everyone in the audience was happy to see him.

Kemp suspended the two commissioners after the April indictment. Miller was on vacation in Colorado when Kemp called last month asking him to become chairman. A Republican, Miller served four terms as sheriff before retiring in 2016 just as Democrats swept into power.

"I didn’t apply for this job," Miller said. "It’s hard to complain about the way things are going if you’re not willing to step up and try to do something about it."

Ricky Dobbs said the only election he's ever won was to serve as vice president of his class at the Naval Academy. He's hoping his appointment to the Douglas County Commission will one day lead to elected office.

Joining Miller at Monday’s commission meeting was the other new member, Naval Academy graduate Ricky Dobbs. A political novice, Dobbs, 35, teaches physical education at Douglas County High School.

"I’m an Independent," Dobbs told the FOX 5 I-Team before the meeting. "I want to be, I look at this opportunity or this situation as I could be that swing vote. Because I’m definitely going to stand up for what’s right. And sometimes what’s right is on both sides."

Instead of a 4-1 Democratic majority, the commission is now split 2-2 with Dobbs as the potential tie-breaking vote.

And that sudden shift clearly did not please some voters at Monday’s meeting.

"I stand before you, disgusted and asking for a change," Elaine Westley addressed the two commissioners, asking for their resignations.

"Kemp has seized power for his party and overridden the will of the people," said Debby Yoder who works as a visual sociologist. "And we will not accept this coup."

Chairman of the Douglas County Democratic Committee Robin Zuniga-Ortega was even more direct.

"Through these appointments, Kemp not only told the citizens of Douglas County that he doesn't care about them or what they want, he was sneering at us," she told the board.

Several residents wore "Black Voters Still Matter" t-shirts to protest Kemp's appointments.

What big changes could be in store for Douglas County citizens? Both newcomers say they want to reduce property taxes, control purchase card abuse that’s already under criminal investigation, and limit spending overall. That includes a controversial vote under the old commission that allows the county to pay the legal fees for those two indicted commissioners.

"Oh no," Dobbs told the FOX 5 I-Team. "I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all."

But both also believe the county should continue paying the legal bills of Probate Judge Christina Peterson. She’s accused by the Judicial Qualifications Commission of 40 counts of civil misconduct.

The difference in their mind? Peterson is not accused of a crime.

"That’s not my biggest concern," said Miller. "My biggest concern is getting our credibility back."

And perhaps the biggest surprise: both hope the people they’re replacing eventually come back to replace them.

"It left a bad taste in my mouth," Dobbs said. "I was like I hated they got caught up to it. Hopefully, everything checks out and they’re proven to be innocent."

He never met the two indicted commissioners. But Miller knows each well.

"Romona Jackson Jones and Henry Mitchell are both my friends," he said. "I hope they’re innocent."

No trial date has been set for any of the five under indictment.