Chester County 911 fight back in court

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJanuary 8, 2014 

Underwood

— The battle for control of Chester County’s 911 dispatch system erupted in court again Wednesday, complete with allegations of illegal meetings, hefty taxpayer costs and political in-fighting.

After listening to hours of accusations and testimony, Circuit Court Judge Knox McMahon of Lexington said he likely will rule Friday on whether county leaders can take control of the dispatch service away from Sheriff Alex Underwood.

Jon Robinson, one of two private attorneys representing the county, told McMahon that the Emergency 911 Department is a “separate entity with a separate budget” that handles calls for agencies – such as fire, EMS and the county’s two rescue squads – that do not fall under the sheriff’s control.

“If the sheriff chooses to dispatch his own deputies, he can do that,” Robinson said. “He has no statutory authority to dispatch other county departments. If he wants to dispatch his own (deputies), then he can come to council and request to do that like every other department. He has not done that.”

Sandra Senn, an attorney with the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association who is representing Underwood, compared the county’s attempts to “snatch” E-911 from the sheriff to a game of “football” that is a disservice to the public and potentially costly.

The only reason County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey wants control of E-911, she said, is because “there was a new face in the Sheriff’s Office” that leaders did not favor. Roddey did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.

She calls 911 dispatch an essential function for law enforcement, which receives more than twice as many calls for service than fire or EMS. County officials are wrong to retake E-911, she said, because they are trying to exert control over an elected official.

The county had controlled E-911 for more than 13 years before the Chester County Council voted in 2009 to transfer its control to then-Sheriff Richard Smith. In November, the council voted 4-3 to reclaim E-911 and place it under Roddey’s control after a closed-door meeting Senn says was illegal because the public was never given proper notice of it. A month later, the County Council, after hiring two private attorneys, took a second vote, this time approving a resolution to transfer control of E-911.

County leaders have not publicly provided a clear reason why they want Roddey, instead of Underwood, to control E-911.

If Judge McMahon rules for the county, officials plan to move E-911 from the Dawson Drive law enforcement complex to an old county-owned armory on Ella Street, where the dispatch operation was once housed. The county initially asked another judge to order the Sheriff’s Office not to interfere with the planned move. County officials later withdrew that motion, but the Sheriff’s Office fired back, asking a judge to stop county leaders from interfering in Underwood’s management of E-911.

Documents filed with the court include deputies’ claims that taxpayers could pay more than $2 million to move E-911, on top of paying for two dispatch services.

The Sheriff’s Office has indicated it plans to run its own dispatch service if the county regains control of E-911, which would require hiring additional staff and buying more equipment. Deputies say the county could never effectively dispatch police officers without having access to criminal histories and warrants.

Maj. Roger Owens, supervisor of criminal justice information systems for the State Law Enforcement Division, testified Wednesday that the county would have been unable to physically move E-911 in November without obtaining the proper permits, certifications and technological surveys. That process could take as long as two years, he said, and the county would have to enter into an agreement with SLED to obtain access to the National Crime Information Center, a federal storehouse of criminal information.

If one of the three other police departments in the county – Chester, Fort Lawn and Great Falls – agreed to sponsor the county, Owens said, it could have access to NCIC. Doing that would create the risk of criminal charges and liability for the police agency if that access were to be abused.

Robinson, the county’s attorney, cited a 2005 ordinance that allowed the Chester County Council to change and amend its organizational chart simply by passing a resolution.

Virginia Sloan – the county’s former E-911 director whom Underwood fired in November after she sent an unauthorized email to employees detailing new policies about officer-involved shootings and working with the coroner – testified Wednesday that the county would be able to operate E-911 if the sheriff gave the county access to criminal histories and warrants. Roddey rehired Sloan and named her the E-911 director.

Senn challenged Sloan’s claims that E-911 should be separate from the Sheriff’s Office.

“That would save your job, at least,” Senn said. “They’re attempting to save one person’s job ... one person’s job.”

Robinson said the county’s resolution could not take effect until Sloan, as E-911 director, certified the dispatch system. She has been unable to do that, he said, because she has been stripped of access to NCIC and is banned from the Sheriff’s Office. Robinson blamed deputies for asking the court to “strike down a legislative action before it comes to fruition.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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