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Will cooler heads prevail?

Or will county commish take sheriff to court over turf?

April 29, 2010
OSSIPEE —Last week, a turf battle between the county sheriff and the county commissioners erupted over who has the authority to reorganize the dispatch center. The sheriff wanted to give the three dispatchers a promotion and $1 per hour pay increase, but the commissioners said he had no right to do that.

The kafuffle came to ahead at last week's county commission meeting when commission member Chip Albee took issue with High Sheriff Christopher Conley's move to promote three dispatchers to a new position called "shift leader." Conley made the promotions in March, but came to the commission meeting last week to coordinate the pay increases, which haven't been granted yet, he said. Base pay for dispatchers ranges from $14.51 to $16.67

But last week's conversation didn't focus on line item transfers. Rather, the commissioners said the sheriff was overstepping his legal authority. The commissioners control non-deputized employees and policies that don't relate to law enforcement in the department, said Albee who threatened to settle the issue in court if the sheriff didn't relent. Albee talked with his hands — pointing at the sheriff as he spoke.

"We're in fact the authoritative body when it comes to job descriptions and promotions in the dispatch center," said Albee.

Conley replied that going to court might be the only option to resolve the conflict. Further, Conley said if the commissioners are right than he might as well turn the dispatch center over to them.

"That would basically usurp what I have to do as sheriff… "I won't have you pointing your finger at me — dictating to me what I'm doing with my department, which I was elected to handle."

On Monday, both Conley and Albee were confident they could resolve their differences without going to court.

But last week, the commissioners geared up for a fight by preparing to back up their argument with a Rockingham County Superior Court case that they say sets precedent that the commissioners have authority over employees who aren't deputized.

"Non-deputy positions within the sheriff's department, such as clerks, dispatchers and other support employees, would come under county-wide administrative personnel policies and procedures governing general terms and conditions of their employment," wrote Rockingham Superior Court Judge Philip Mangones in Sheriff Daniel Linehan versus Rockingham County Commissioners. "The commissioners, however, do not have authority to interfere with the terms and conditions of the deputy sheriffs' employment, so long as the sheriff complies with the overall budget constraints relating to the deputy sheriffs' employment."

The discussion began civilly, as Albee prodded Conley to explain the need for the promotions — which Albee said wasn't clear and needs to be pinned down in a policy. Further, Albee said had Conley explained the structure change to the commission, they could have helped promote it to the public and other county officials who would otherwise be skeptical of the sheriff's need to promote his employees.

"You need to take advantage of our skills," said Albee. "We were able to sell a very conservative public body (the county delegation) a very expensive nursing home."

But the sheriff argued that the dispatchers are part of his department and he wanted to make a structural change with the way the communication center operates. The change was needed because the dispatch center's civilian supervisor, Tracy Waterman, needed some support during the hours when she's not on duty. Waterman works five shifts per week out of the 21 shifts per week that the 24-hour dispatch center operates. Waterman was getting lots of calls from dispatchers when she wasn't on duty.

"We were asking her to do way too much," said Conley in a follow up interview.

But commissioners said the nature of the dispatch center's leadership was confusing. A sheriff's deputy oversees the dispatch center along with the civilian supervisor. The commissioners wondered how the shift leaders fit into the mix.

Commission Chairman David Sorensen asked Conley to abstain from giving more raises to non-deputized employees. Sorensen said he was getting complaints from the other county department heads who were generally told to keep raises at 1 percent. Sorensen also said members of the public told him they were upset that the sheriff was giving raises in an economy where people are lucky to have jobs.

Conley replied shift leaders will have lots of additional duties, including handling unusual or serious calls, overseeing the quality of work done on shift, and briefing the next shift's leader. Conley said he tried to get dispatchers to take a promotion without a pay increase but that didn't generate any interest. There are 11 full time and four part time dispatchers. The raises would cost $120 per week, he said.

County dispatchers answer calls for about 90 law enforcement and emergency response agencies in the county. Per year it handles 350,000 radio communications and of those 78,000 were calls for emergency service. Conley said the new structure was designed to prevent mistakes.

The decision to make the promotions and raises was done from within the sheriff's department during the middle of the county's budget season. Conley said he thought it would be inappropriate to ask for what amounts to a new budget item so late in the process. Conley said he would find the money for the promotions by reducing the amount allocated for part-time dispatchers and overtime.

County watchdog Maureen Spencer, of Effingham, who works in a hospital, said it's standard practice for nurses to operate under a shift leader structure. Nurse shift leaders are given extra compensation, she said.

Albee said the complicated nature of county government lends itself to creating these kinds of conflicts. The commission and the sheriff are both elected. The commission is responsible for presenting a county budget to another group made up of 14 state representatives called the county delegation, which approves the money.

Delegate Christopher Ahlgren, who sits on a subcommittee that oversees the sheriff's budget, said he didn't recall discussing the dispatcher's promotions in the budget season. Ahlgren also said he was unaware that dispatchers would fall under the authority of the commissioners.

Martin Lord Osman
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Garnett Hill
Garnett Hill
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