In continuing 911 battle, Chester County considers power shift

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMarch 16, 2014 

Underwood, Roddey

Chester County Council members will consider a plan Monday to give them the power to restructure county offices and departments after mistakenly believing last year that the council had authority to transfer the 911 system from the Chester County Sheriff’s Office to the county supervisor.

Opponents say the new plan violates the state Constitution, serving as another attempt by the county to usurp authority from elected officials holding county offices. Some Chester County Council members disagree, saying the plan is only a housekeeping measure.

The change comes during a legal battle between the County Council and Sheriff Alex Underwood over control of the 911 system. The council wants to transfer control from Underwood to Supervisor Carlisle Roddey.

For weeks, the county’s private attorneys used a 2005 plan permitting them to change the county’s organizational chart and change the structure of county departments at will to justify the transfer of 911. But after a series of court hearings, the clerk to the County Council disclosed in an affidavit that the 2005 plan had been repealed in 2012. The 2012 plan gave the county supervisor the ability to change job duties and organizational charts but does not extend that same power to other members of council.

Sandra Senn, the S.C. Sheriff’s Association attorney representing Underwood in his fight to keep control of 911, writes in court documents that neither plan allows the county to control “the staffing of an elected constitutional officer via a mere chart change.”

The fight over 911 started in November when the county, after meeting behind closed doors for several hours to discuss a “personnel matter,” voted to return responsibility for the 911 system to Roddey. The system had been under the county’s authority until 2009 when the County Council agreed to give it to the Sheriff’s Office.

Underwood fired Virginia Sloan, the former 911 director in the Sheriff’s Office, accusing her of conspiring with Roddey and other county officials to discreetly transfer 911 to the county and return the operation system to its former location on Ella Street, according to court testimony. The 911 department is currently housed at the county’s law enforcement complex on Dawson Drive. Roddey then hired Sloanto lead the 911 system if it’s transferred to his office.

The battle continues in court. After council members realized they had been citing from the wrong ordinance, they sought to adopt a new plan that gives County Council the ability to make changes to departments and offices, according to court testimony.

That proposal has won the attention of the S.C. Association of Countywide Elected Executives, which claims in court filings that the proposed ordinance is unconstitutional and would give county leaders the ability to meddle with employees who work for elected officials holding county offices.

Such an idea is troubling when elected officials are trying to serve the people who put them in office, said Dr. Lois Eargle, Horry County auditor and first vice president of the elected executives group. “As an elected official, you have to go back to the people,” she said, “you can not let somebody come in and destroy or disturb your office whenever you have to serve the people.”

County Council members, she said, represent districts. Elected officials holding county offices represent everyone.

“You have to do what’s best for the countywide taxpayers, rather than just a few,” she said.

In the 1990s, Eargle won a lawsuit against Horry County’s administrator, who terminated employees in Eargle’s office after they went to a former employee’s funeral in a county car and were later involved in a car accident. Eargle filed suit when the administrator went above her head and disciplined her employees. She won her case in the circuit, appellate and supreme courts.

“The only thing that the law requires a County Council to do with elected officials is, one, provide office space and, two, provide finances to run the office,” she said. “That’s it.”

It would be unconstitutional, the county executives group alleges in documents, if the ordinance allows Roddey to exert control over the sheriff’s employees: “The offices potentially affected would include not just the office of sheriff, but all other constitutional offices as well,” according to the filing.

State laws prevent county supervisors from exerting control over elected officials occupying county offices, aside from setting organizational policies. Efforts to reach Roddey have been unsuccessful.

Attorney Jon Robinson, who represents the county in its dispute, said county council members will have to decide how the ordinance progresses, stressing that it’s only a proposal and has not yet been enacted.

Allegations that the ordinance would give County Council the ability to manipulate employees of elected officials is “not true,” said Councilwoman Mary Guy.

“The council would have no jurisdiction over any elected official at all,” she said. “We can’t do anything about them because they’re elected just like we are.”

“My interpretation is (it’s) just housekeeping,” said Chester County Councilman Alex Oliphant.

The only change to the policy, he said, is language insinuating that the County Council can only change job descriptions during budget discussions or by adopting another law.

Aside from that, little has changed, Oliphant said, stressing that nothing in the ordinance gives County Council rights to meddle with an elected official’s command structure. State law ensures that, Oliphant said.

“We have the authority over the budget,” he said. “Just because you’re an elected official, you can’t just go and hire as many employees as you want; you have to have a budget for them.”

The constitution gives the sheriff wide “latitude” over the operations of his office, said Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York. When he was 16th Circuit solicitor, he said he never worried about county officials interfering with his office because both entities were invested in administering justice.

“If you’re not careful, the egos get involved and the personalities get involved and you lose sight” of serving citizens, Pope said. “It’s kind of like an argument with your spouse. It starts off as something meaningful, but you end up arguing” over something insignificant.

The S.C. Association of Countywide Elected Executives’ stance against the ordinance is fueled by the group’s belief that the 911 system worked well under Underwood and attempts to place it back under Roddey’s control have more to do with “somebody who wants a little power whenever some people are elected,” Eargle said.

If the County Council passes the ordinance, Eargle said, then the Chester Sheriff’s Office likely won’t be the only office it tries to dominate.

“They’ll want to do something else, want to appoint (the) auditor, want to appoint (the) treasurer, want to appoint (the) clerk of court,” she said. “Why do you want to upset something when it costs the taxpayers money for attorney’s fees and causes the employees anxiety?”

In court documents, the Sheriff’s Office claims some of its employees have already expressed concerns about who they will have to report to – Underwood or Roddey – should a judge rule that 911 return to the county.

“A county employee cannot serve two masters,” Eargle said.

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