Chester police chiefs side with Underwood in 911 spat with county council

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comFebruary 9, 2014 

— Chester County's three police chiefs have said they do not want the county to dispatch law enforcement officers for them, unanimously throwing their support behind Sheriff Alex Underwood in his fight against the Chester County Council for control of 911. But, just how much influence the chiefs will have in a judge’s final decision on the matter likely won’t be clear until the months-long battle comes to an end.

Last month, both Great Falls Police Chief Steven Rice and Fort Lawn Police Chief David Hayes testified they found no fault with the way Underwood ran the system, and thought it was more efficient with a law enforcement officer at the helm. Chief Andre’ Williams, out of town when his colleagues spoke in court, later filed a sworn affidavit essentially saying the same thing.

After listening to hours of testimony, evidence and allegations during a two-day trial, Circuit Court Judge Knox McMahon has not yet made a decision about 911. McMahon will return to Chester during the week of Feb. 17, but there is no indication he will hold another court hearing to make his ruling or if one will even come by then.

“We’re all kind of in limbo,” said Fort Lawn Mayor John Rumford. “That’s the best way to describe our situation.”

The ongoing dispute between the county and Sheriff’s Office over control of the 911 dispatch service landed in court after both parties filed numerous court documents alleging illegal meetings, wasteful taxpayer spending and state law violations.

The fight started in November when the county, after meeting behind closed doors for several hours to discuss a “personnel matter,” voted publicly to change the county’s organizational chart and return responsibility for the 911 system to County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey. The council has never publically discussed transferring responsibility of the 911 system to Roddey.

Underwood had fired Virginia Sloan, the 911 director, for sending unauthorized messages about an alleged policy he never made and allegedly conspiring with Roddey to begin moving 911 to its old location. She later was rehired by Roddey to lead the 911 system if it’s transferred to his office. In December, after hiring private attorneys to represent them, County Council members took a second vote to transfer the 911 authority, this time approving a resolution under an ordinance they established in 2005 allowing them to change the county’s organizational chart when they want.

The county’s lawyers have used that organizational chart and the argument that public safety is a county function – not strictly law enforcement – to justify Roddey’s decision to reclaim 911. Currently, 17 of 46 South Carolina sheriffs have control over 911 systems.

After the trial, the council’s clerk wrote in an affidavit that, while performing research for a customer, she realized the organizational chart referenced during the dispute had been repealed two years ago. During the trial, she testified that the chart was the correct document.

In a letter to Jon Robinson, attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, one of the two private attorneys hired to represent the county indicates that County Council will seek to correct its error by codifying a new ordinance to replace the repealed one. The new ordinance would give Roddey the power to handle employment matters regarding all county personnel, including the Sheriff’s Office.

Neither Robinson nor his partner, Kenneth Dubose, could be reached for this story.

During a County Council meeting last week, county leaders read the first version of a “housekeeping” ordinance to develop a method for establishing and altering county agencies, departments and positions, said Chester County Councilman Alex Oliphant. It does not specifically name 911, the Sheriff’s Office or any other county office.

In court documents, Sandra Senn, a Sheriff’s Association attorney defending Underwood, rails against the county’s attempts to correct a defunct ordinance insinuating it can “control the staffing of an elected constitutional holder via a mere chart change.”

She’s called the county’s attempts to reclaim the 911 system a power grab steeped in political rivalry. She says county officials are trying to exert control over an elected official and have ignored public meetings laws by making decisions and changing policies without the public’s input. She said the county council members’ second vote was their attempt to correct a violation of South Carolina’s open meetings law after she made them aware of it.

She’s also accused the county of burdening taxpayers with exorbitant costs if two dispatchers operate in the county, and claims County Council has violated open records laws by still failing to provide her with information she requested months ago. Senn told The Herald last week that she’s complied with the county’s records request of the Sheriff’s Office by gathering 20 gigabytes worth of documents and emails pertaining to 911. She was not asked to produce those documents, but has indicated to the county that she can make them available for inspection.

‘...Not worth the whole argument’

During last month’s trial, both Great Falls Police Chief Steven Rice and Fort Lawn Police Chief David Hayes said they have no plans to join the county’s dispatch operations, both of them calling the system under the Sheriff’s Office “more efficient” than it had been in the past.

“It’s considerably better for our agency,” Rice said, adding that Sheriff’s Office employees are more “accountable” when handling sensitive information.

Much of that information includes a suspect’s criminal history and outstanding warrants, which police dispatchers and officers are able to access using the federal criminal database, National Crime Information Center.

To use those records, South Carolina police agencies must enter into an agreement with the State Law Enforcement Division. The Sheriff’s Office has an agreement with SLED that was renewed last June. The Chester, Great Falls and Fort Lawn police departments have similar agreements with SLED, but depend on the Sheriff’s Office to dispatch their officers. The county has no such agreements with SLED, testimony has established.

A SLED major testified that the sheriff or three police chiefs would have to consent to letting the county use their pass codes to access NCIC. If that privilege is abused, both the county and the responsible police agency would be criminally liable. Underwood, who plans to run his own dispatch service, does not plan to share his code with the county. Neither do Rice or Hayes.

Great Falls Mayor Don Camp said he’s discussed the issue with Rice, but stressed that he thinks the system works well with the county and with the Sheriff’s Office.

“I would be willing to work with it either way,” he said. “We functioned when it was under the county. We’ve functioned under the sheriff.”

Camp said Great Falls police never complained about the 911 system when the county ran it before 2009, though Rice in court said county employees dressed unprofessionally in the dispatch center and watched movies while working. The mayor said he understands Rice’s belief that 911 would work better with deputies managing it, but he called the sheriff’s fight with the county supervisor, who “controls the money,” fruitless.

“No matter what Big A (Underwood) wants to do, if he doesn’t have the money to do it” it won’t happen, he said. “I’m not saying that’s right…but (Roddey’s) going to win. He’s got control of the money. If I were the sheriff, I would say ‘take it’ because I know the repercussions if I don’t.

“It don’t seem like it’s worth the whole argument,” he said.

“There have not been specifics on either position made available to the town officially in any way,” said Fort Lawn Mayor John Rumford. “Nothing specific has been provided to” show town leaders how the 911 system would be different under the county.

“We know the sheriff’s...because we’re with that (now).”

What concerns Rumford most, he said, are talks that two dispatch centers in the county could cost taxpayers up to $3 million. The town is undergoing financial difficulties, he said, adding, “I think all municipalities are strapped for funds right now and that would be a concern for us.”

Efforts to reach Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow and City Administrator Sandi Worthy were unsuccessful last week.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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