Chester County officials’ explanation of the the decision to transfer control of the county’s Emergency 911 operations from Sheriff Alex Underwood to County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey is a classic Catch-22:
“We have filed a lawsuit to prevent sheriff’s deputies from interfering with the transfer of the E-911 system.”
“Sorry, we can’t tell you because we have filed a lawsuit.”
The issue is, of course, more complicated than that. But county officials are using the lawsuit as a pretext for refusing to reveal the reasons they decided to wrest control of E-911 from the sheriff and turn it over to Roddey.
We think county residents have a right to know the details of why this action was taken. If there were problems with the way the E-911 system was being operated, the public has a right to know about them.
The system, first established in 1996, initially was operated by the county. But in 2009, the council voted unanimously to transfer control to the sheriff’s office after then-Sheriff Richard Smith asked for that authority.
But on Nov. 4, the council went into special session allegedly to discuss a personnel matter. The session lasted for three hours but no public announcement was made regarding the nature of the meeting or why it was held.
Then, on Nov. 12, the council voted to take control of E-911 away from the sheriff’s office. This time, the vote was 4-3 with Roddey casting the tie-breaking vote.
After the Nov. 12 meeting, Joan Winters, the county attorney, sent Underwood an email telling him about the council’s decision. She also informed him that within 30 days all E-911 equipment would be moved from the Sheriff’s Office to the system’s former location across town inside the old armory on Ella Street.
And on Nov. 15, the county filed a lawsuit asking a judge to order sheriff’s deputies not to interfere with the shipping of equipment from the current dispatch center to the proposed new location. Underwood, who is fighting the transfer, is represented by a Charleston attorney under the auspices of the S.C. Sheriffs Association.
The council did not vote in open session before going into closed session, as required by state law. Nor was the purpose of the executive session made public as required. Nor was the public informed about the decision to transfer the E-911 system.
If council members took a vote on a policy change without informing the public and giving them a chance to discuss it, then the vote was illegal, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association and an expert on freedom of information issues.
About the only explanation offered so far from the county is cryptic references from County Councilman Archie Lucas to complaints from E-911 employees and “certain facts” presented to the council about disputes between Underwood and other county officials.
Underwood plans to keep fighting the county’s attempt to take control of 911, his lawyer said, until a judge orders him to stop or the issue is discussed in public meetings, giving residents a chance to comment. We think a public meeting on this dispute is long overdue.
County officials can’t make a move of this magnitude without telling their constituents why they are doing so. Public confidence in the 911 service is crucial; when people call to report an emergency, it can be a matter of life and death.
Using the lawsuit as an excuse not to comment is a smokescreen. County officials had ample opportunity to properly inform the public about all aspects of this matter before the lawsuit was filed.
Perhaps county officials have a legitimate reason for wanting to take control of the 911 system. If so, they should tell residents what it is.