Buckner seeks position of Chief Magistrate Judge
Apr 23, 2014 | 1137 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Gale Buckner is seeking the position of Murray County Chief Magistrate Judge. She is running as the incumbent of the non-partisan office. Buckner was appointed to the post following the resignation of Bryant Cochran who had just won re-election in 2012. Cochran resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and admitted to the presigning of warrants but denied the other allegations. Cochran has not been charged but is still under investigation by federal and state authorities.

Buckner is the daughter of Ruth Hayes and the late Malcom Buckner.

“I am a fifth-generation Murray Countian.” Buckner said. “I am a 1975 graduate of Murray County High School, attended Dalton Junior College, received my bachelor’s in 1981 from Georgia State University in Urban Life and Criminal Justice. I received my Master’s in public administration from Branell University in 1987.”

Buckner said that her employment background is more than 36 years of full time criminal justice experience.

“ From 1978 until 1981 I worked as a dispatcher with the Chatsworth Police Department...that was while I was commuting back and forth to Georgia State university working on my bachelor’s. In 1981 I went to work at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as an undercover narcotics officer...was promoted to special agent and moved on up the ranks. I worked everything from political corruption to smuggling cases and transferred to the Region One office in Calhoun that handles our area and I was assigned to Murray and Whitfield Counties and I worked robberies, burglaries, child molestations, homicides, the whole gamut.

“I was a SAC for our Region Ten office which covers metro Atlanta, was our Director of Personnel for a period of time, became our Director of Legislative and other Governmental Affairs where I managed our legislative issues and budget issues within the state capitol and in Washington. In 2000 Governor Roy Barnes appointed me to head his Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and CJCC had two purposes, one was to disseminate federal grant dollars back to local law enforcement and victim service agencies and at the height we were receiving close to $80 million that I was responsibvle for. They also serve as the victim’s compensation board.”

Buckner said she was reappointed to the post by Governor Sonny Perdue who a year later appointed her to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. The members of that board are appointed by the sitting governor and confirmed by the State Senate. Buckner served as Vice Chair for two years and Chair for two years.

“Governor Nathan Deal appointed me to head his Department of Juvenile Justice,” Buckner said. “The budget was a quarter of a billion dollars, we had over four thousand employees, we served approximately 2,000 troubled youth in our 27 detention centers across the state. There were also more than 90 probation offices for youthful offenders as well.”

Buckner retired from state employment in October of 2012 and had been appointed by the four superior court judges of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit to serve as Chief Magistrate following Cochran’s resignation. She assumed that post on November 2, 2012.

“I have served in this office for almost 16 months,” Buckner said. “It has been a great pleasure to serve the citizens and those who have business here in Murray County. We have made terrific progress, my staff and I have, in moving our court to one that is recognized as being responsible and authentic and making decisions based on the laws of our state. While we’ve made great progress, there is still work we would like to do to enhance our court as we are still just a very small part of the Murray County government.

“We have several goals at this time,” Buckner. “We have done so much in the first 18 months, it is time to reassess fully what can be accomplished in the next four years....we have five future actions that we want to take, that’s in addition to us having a stable schedule of court now assigned of us doing bond hearings five days a week.” Buckner said that is important for safety reasons.

“It adds an additional day that helps make a determination on those that should receive bond...the average cost to house an inmate per day at the Murray Coun ty jail is approximately $55 so the sooner we can set bonds for people who deserve them it’s a cost savings to the people of Murray County.”

Buckner said other items will not take four years to accoplish. One is to continue to develop a Best Business Practices. Buckner said city and county business owners will have input into developing a plan to deal with outstanding checks. She is also looking into placing records dating back to the 1970’s on computer for easier access to those who need the records which would include researchers from the Better Business Bureau and attorney offices.

Another item is to assess the pros and cons of fines being able to be paid online, particularly on animal control citations.

Buckner also wants to see more staff cross training.

“We are a very small office,” Buckner said. “There is myself, and two associate judges but then we only have three full time staff members and for the workload that we have, that can be fairly voluminous, so if one staff member wants to take a vacation, or they get sick or a family member gets sick or ill, we need to make sure that the business of the court continues at the same pace. We are doing it small batches now, the cross training...we will continue that...I want to write more educational pieces...the feedback I’ve gotten back from the community is that they are being read...we’ve gotten some good feedback on the information that we’ve been able to provide to the public.”

Videoconferencing is another item Buckner would like to see for the court.

“If we have an offender who has been arrested and is in our jail and it would be a danger to that offender or to the public or to law enforcement to bring the offender out for a bond hearing or some sort of special hearing, we can have videoconferencing set up in our offices and in the jail as a collaborative effort.”

Buckner said that she was appointed to the post but that she wanted the public to know that is the way it had to happen by state law. “We had to wait until the next election cycle for this election to take place,” Buckner said. “I was brought in as a problem solver to an office that was not well respected, had had some personnel issues that had gone on and were still going on. So by me being able to come in as a problem solver we were able to get that office back on the level that it should be. I am the best candidate for the job because I am a hard worker, I truly do treat everyone fairly. I was told when I came in that I needed to watch the decisions that I made in court on certain types of cases, certain people, because that would work against me in an election. My response to everyone who said that was I’m going to hear every case fairly, I’m going to abide by what the laws of the State of Georgia instruct for us to abide by. I needto be able to lay my head down on my pillow at night and sleep well. Any future election can resolve itself as it will. I rarely make decisions in court where everybody is happy, sometimes nobody is happy when they leave my courtroom, but I know that the decisions that have been made have been made in good faith based upon the laws of the State of Georgia.”

Buckner also explained about the more than $300,000 she found in an account.

“One of the first things that I did was to look at our financial status,” Buckner said. “To try and understand how busy our office was, how much monies were taken in and disseminated and as I went to my mandated boot camp class...I talked with my colleagues that were there as well as my instructors. Again by state law each new magistrate judge has to have a mentor and I talked with my mentor at the class and learned that for...most counties of pur size, an average magistrate court balance every monthwould be somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000...in our bank balance...at that time was running an average of $200,000 to $300,000 each month.”

Monies in that account are collected as fees, bond monies, garnishments and probation fees as well as others. Buckner said she needed to understand why that balance was out of range.

“I was told by the people in my office that dating back at least nine years, there was $50,000 in the account that nobody knew who it belonged to or where it came from,” Buckner said. “For whatever reason those funds were never disseminated...there was a backlog in the office...there were stacks of files and documents in every office, in the hallway, on the staff’s desks, behind the staff’s desks. It was obvious that we had a backlog. It was my concern that some of those stacks still had checks in them that had never been entered into our system...I continued to look into where the money should have gone. We looked at everything...we looked to determine if there were beneficiaries. Per Georgia law, there are beneficiaries that receive part of the money from an offender...we started to explore if all of that had been paid out as it should. I started looking back just over the last year, it was quickly realized that the monies dated back even past that. I started working on a regular basis with the county paid auditor to determine what had happened. It took several months.”

Buckner said the majority of the monies resulted from a miscalculation of fees for a fund called Alernative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

“The maximum fee for ADR per case is $7,” Buckner said. “However, what we were able to find is that more monies had been collected in the name of ADR than was statutorily allowed.” Buckner said more than $240,000 was paid to Murray County officials. Per Georgia statute, excess monies are determined to be abandoned if not collected after five years. Buckner said the audit only went back to 2008. Buckner opened a new account to manage the money better. More than $20,000 is left in the old account in case there is a claim.

Buckner also said that in January 2013 more than 200 garnishment checks in a stacked area dating back to October 2012 that had never been entered into the system, which amounted to nearly $25,000. Buckner said she entered the checks the same day herself.

“We balance our money every day,” Buckner said. “The check cycles are done once a month.”

Buckner also spoke about an open door policy.

“We have a wide open door policy,” Buckner said. “For people that need assistance in our court. I have made changes from the policy that predated me. We are not an office for people to come and hang out. We have private papers in that office, we have private business that weare conducting on the telephone that people do not need to have knowledge of if it doesn’ impact them. In the past I understand that it was common for the court to have friends who would come and sit, drink their coffee, sit at a desk, look at what was on the desk, anwer the telephone...that’s not going to ahppen on my watch. I don’t think it happens in any other county office and it shouldn’t happen. We are a biusiness. We have confidential material in our office and confidential conversations take place in the office for business. Anyone who needs to see us regarding a legitimate business concern, we make time for them. We make time for as long as they need to see us or talk to us whether it’s on the phone or in person. But we are not a hang out location.”