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Settle the dispute in Chester County

February 25, 2014 

  • In summary

    The interests of Chester County would be better served if parties involved in a roadside dispute could settle their differences without a complicated legal battle.

Emotions might be too frayed for a reconciliation between Chester County’s volunteer firefighters and the county Sheriff’s Office. But it’s worth a try.

The dispute that has riled the two groups centers on the Feb. 15 arrest of West Chester Volunteer Fire Chief Andy Martin and his brother volunteer firefighter Tommy Martin, a former county councilman, at the scene of a truck crash and fuel spill on S.C. 9 west of Chester. Andy Martin had asked sheriff’s deputies, who also were at the crash site, to close the highway to traffic.

Deputies said no, citing the earlier decision of a state trooper to keep the highway be open until a wrecker arrived and hauled off the truck. After being refused, Andy Martin used an emergency radio to express his displeasure with the decision, mentioning the 2016 election, when Sheriff Alex Underwood is up for re-election.

Underwood and some of his top deputies went to the scene, where they confronted the brothers. Words were exchanged and, deputies allege, the Martin brothers pushed the sheriff and scuffled with one of his deputies.

The next day both firefighters were arrested on assault charges and jailed overnight.

The entire encounter was unfortunate, an embarrassment for the county. It was bad enough that members of county agencies entrusted with dealing with emergencies and protecting public safety butted heads at the accident scene. It was worse that the situation was allowed to escalate to the point that two firefighters ended up in jail.

The Chester County Rural Fire Commission, which oversees the county’s volunteer firefighters, is thinking about hiring an attorney to ask the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate Underwood’s handling of the incident. Others say the State Law Enforcement Division should be brought in to look into what happened.

The Sheriff’s Office also is involved in a legal battle with county officials regarding who should run the county’s 911 emergency dispatch system. The sheriff had been in charge of the operation when, in November, the County Council met privately before voting in public to change the county’s organizational chart and return responsibility for the 911 system to County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey.

Underwood contends that he should remain in charge of the system, and has challenged the county’s actions, and both the Sheriff’s Office and the county have filed numerous court documents alleging illegal meetings, wasteful taxpayer spending and state law violations. A circuit court judge heard hours of testimony in the case during a recent two-day trial but his decision about the status of the 911 system is pending.

As with the Fire Commission’s support for the Martin brothers, Underwood has the support of Chester County’s three police chiefs in the 911 dispute. All three said they found no fault with the way the sheriff had run the system.

What, if any, common underlying issues might have contributed to these disputes remains murky. But relations among various county agencies and employees obviously are strained.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Chester County are the losers. The rancor is counterproductive to good government and reliable service in the county.

The county would be better served if both sides involved in the roadside scuffle could step back, take a deep breath and find a way to resolve their differences without calling on state agencies or getting bogged down in a protracted legal battle.

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