For now, Chester sheriff retains control for 911 dispatch system

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comDecember 6, 2013 

— The Chester County Sheriff’s Office will continue to control the county’s emergency 911 dispatch center and all its equipment after a judge on Friday ordered the county council and the sheriff’s office to maintain the status quo until January.

Circuit Court Judge Ernest Kinard ruled that another judge will make the final call on whether the county council can move the 911 dispatch system from the sheriff to the county government. Kinard approved a temporary agreement between the county and sheriff’s office that keeps Sheriff Alex Underwood in charge of 911 operations and employees, but also gives the county its own 911 director separate from law enforcement.

In his time as an administrative judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit, Kinard said he’s never had problems with either the sheriff’s office or county council.

“But, they apparently have a dispute this morning,” he said.

That dispute played out in court documents last month after the county council sued the sheriff’s office, asking a judge to issue a restraining order preventing deputies from interfering in plans to transfer 911 operations from the Dawson Drive law enforcement complex to the 911 system’s former headquarters in an armory on Ella Street.

During a meeting on Nov. 12, the county council voted to return 911 authority to the county after meeting in executive session for several hours. Policy considerations for 911 were never discussed in public. On Monday, the county council voted a second time to retake control of the dispatch center after approving a resolution changing the county’s organizational chart and moving all 911 funds, appropriations and employees to Roddey’s office.

Sandra Senn, an attorney with the S.C. Sheriff’s Association representing Underwood, has argued the county’s first vote was illegal because the issue was never discussed publicly. She has also said there have been no allegations that Underwood is improperly managing E-911. She maintains that dispatch services belong with law enforcement.

The Monday vote by county council, she said, was an attempt to fix a “procedural defect.” She also says a policy decision transferring 911 to the county should have been approved by voters.

This week, she filed court papers asking a judge to stop the county from interfering in Underwood’s management of 911. Several affidavits have followed, including statements made by sheriff’s office and 911 employees claiming that equipment had been removed from the armory without their knowledge and that they are locked out of the building, which stored the sheriff’s office’s backup computer servers and old equipment. They also claim the county would be unable to properly dispatch police because it has not entered into agreements with the State Law Enforcement Division to access federal criminal databases, which include warrants and criminal records.

Jon Robinson, one of two attorneys representing the county, said the council’s motive for reclaiming control of 911 stems from a “policy decision they believed was in the best interest of citizens.” State laws, he said, do not give law enforcement officials the legal authority over E-911, and the county ran 911 for 13 of the 17 years it’s been operational.

In 2009, when Richard Smith was sheriff, the county council voted to transfer 911 to the Sheriff’s Office. It remained under the control of and housed at the sheriff’s office until Monday.

“The statute says it’s a public safety function, not law enforcement,” Robinson said.

None of those arguments was heard in court on Friday. Instead, Kinard told the county and sheriff’s office that a resolution would not be reached until next month and they would have to draft a temporary agreement to keep the peace for the next 30 days.

That agreement includes lifting the trespass notice banning 911 Director Virginia “Ginny” Sloan from the Dawson Drive law enforcement complex. She will have the same access to the law enforcement complex as the public, meaning she will be able to enter the sheriff’s office lobby and have full access to the courts, but she is unable to enter the dispatch center.

Fired by Underwood after sending an email to 911 employees explaining they would be moving under the county’s authority, Sloan has since been rehired by the county. She is no longer a sheriff’s office employee, but she is considered “the county’s E-911 director,” said county attorney Joan E. Winters. She will be paid until January. Her salary is less than $50,000 a year.

Until a judge makes a ruling, she will continue working solely for the county, assisting officials with preparing the Ella Street armory for use as a dispatch center again.

“I haven’t done any of this on my own,” Sloan said after Friday’s hearing.

Her concern, she said, is with the county and 911’s employees, who she described as a “family.”

“You don’t turn your back and walk away from family,” she said. “I just wish we could come to some agreement. I’m not staying here for the actual fight; I’m staying here because I care for the county and employees.”

Still pending is a federal sex discrimination lawsuit she filed alleging former Sheriff Richard Smith demoted her because of gender.

Other terms of the county and sheriff’s office’s agreement include:

• Underwood keeping the sheriff’s office’s 911 director position vacant until January;

• Deputies maintaining an in-house backup 911 system;

• Sloan will report to Roddey, while all 911 employees will report to the sheriff;

• All 911 employees will continue to be paid by the sheriff’s office until January.

While much of the agreement works in the sheriff’s office’s favor, Senn said it’s not ideal for authorities to store a backup system in the dispatch center. The backup system was stored off-site in case an emergency or natural disaster damaged the current system.

A second hearing on the matter is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 8.

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