FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Three Republican candidates for the seat of solicitor general made their case during a debate sponsored by the Forsyth County Tea Party.
Incumbent Forsyth County Solicitor General Donna Gopaul faces a challenge from William “Bill” Finch and Susan Zereini.
Gopaul was appointed in March 2013 by Gov. Nathan Deal to lead the office after Leslie Abernathy was appointed a state court judge.
Gopaul, who has come under attack from Zereini early in the campaign because of her past Democratic-party affiliations, defended her voting record by saying the Democratic Party has left her.
“The way that you vote is a personal and private thing,” Gopaul said. “I know it’s been my opponent’s main focus to point out that I voted in the Democratic primary for the last two elections.
“But regardless of who you vote for in the primary — that has nothing to do with your job as the solicitor general,” she said.
Gopaul revealed that in January 2013, Deal, a Republican, interviewed all three — Gopaul, Zereini and Finch – for the solicitor’s office position.
“He saw something in me and it was probably the fact that I worked in the office for three and a half years as an assistant solicitor and I already knew what to do to make it more efficient to save taxpayer money,” Gopaul said.
Gopaul says that she has cut the solicitor’s office budget by $200,000 since taking over by getting rid of unnecessary staff, including a domestic violence social worker, and by using digital means of communication and calendar to cut down on printer and paper costs.
“My actions as solicitor this year and two months that I’ve been in office have been demonstrated. Nobody else here can say that to you,” Gopaul said. “I’ve made it more efficient for taxpayers while prosecuting misdemeanor cases and making the roads safer for you.”
Zereini, who has 13 years of combined experience as a prosecutor in New York and Cherokee County, countered that it does matter how you vote. Zereini said her conservative values started at a very young age with her parents, who were unpopular in New York because they were Republicans.
“It does matter and it shows your strength and shows that you stand up for what you believe in,” Zereini said. “It’s being true to your values, and that goes to the essence of being a prosecutor. “I’ve always stuck to my values no matter what happened,” she said.
All three candidates said they would continue educational programs, seek justice for victims and work to keep crime low and streets safe.
Finch, who moved to the county in 1993 when the population was about 40,000, had served as a former police officer in Fulton County and as a prosecutor in the late 90s.
With the population in the county now reaching nearly 200,000, Finch said a rise in crime is inevitable.
“Whenever you have an influx of new people, you will have an influx of crime,” Finch said.
To deal with this, Finch said he would ask for more resources.
“The appropriation of money makes people cringe up, but if you don’t have the support from your government…you need the resources to keep up with the influx of people.”
Gopaul said she has been able to prepare for the county’s growth “at no extra cost to the Forsyth County taxpayer.”
Gopaul touted a program where someone from her office is assigned to address homeowners’ associations and steer residents in the right direction before something becomes a crime. Gopaul said she eventually wants to get a prosecutor in the sheriff’s precincts to answer residents’ issues.
Finch said that what Gopaul is doing sounds like crime suppression.
“The solicitor’s office should not be allocating money to crime suppression,” Finch said. “I think we need to keep our crime suppression with the sheriff’s office.”
Zereini said she wants to make sure people know her office’s duties.
“What I’ve seen through this campaign is that no one knows what the solicitor general does,” she said. “I want people to be educated. The teenagers out there don’t know what the consequences are.”
Zereini said working with the police department is important.
“You have to make sure you are tough on crime,” Zereini said. “I don’t play games.”
Gopaul said open communications have helped streamline court cases in the county. What used to take all day to accomplish regarding a traffic ticket has been cut to a couple of hours.
Finch said he will stand up for crime victims.
“The guiding principle for me is always: Am I doing the ‘right’ thing? Am I doing the ‘just’ thing and not just doing the ‘legal’ thing,” he said.
Watch debate video!