Friday, March 19, 2010

March 19, 2010 Civil Service: Commissioner Bruce, Sheriff Jarnagin, and County Attorney Rusty Cantwell Tangle over Recent Firings

There were some real fireworks at the end of yesterday's county commission meeting.

Commissioner Ricky Bruce had sent a letter to commissioners expressing his concern and displeasure at the recent firing of three deputies who are running for office in Hamblen and Jefferson Counties in violation of the Civil Service Act. The three deputies are Ernie Burzell and Roy Rucker who are running for Sheriff in Hamblen County and David Kitts who is running for Sheriff in Jefferson County.

Bruce had lots of questions and comments about the law itself (he doesn't like it) and about the handling of the entire matter. Bruce wanted to blame the Sheriff for putting the three on unpaid leave and then telling them that they had to resign or be fired because of state law TCA 8-8-419.

Sheriff Jarnagin stated that the blame lies with the three-man Civil Service Board (Joel Seal, Tim Horner, and Scott Purkey). Jarnagin said that it was the Civil Service Board that granted leave to Burzell, Rucker, and Kitts, and the Sheriff then signed off on the leave. Jarnagin added that the Civil Service Board should be responsible for knowing the civil service act under which it operates and should not have granted leave. [UPDATE: Scott Purkey has been serving illegally on the Civil Service Board for many months. Click here and here.]

Cantwell tried to defend himself as he explained that he had been involved in many discussions about the law going back many months. Bruce began to realize that the civil service act as written and perhaps even the federal Hatch Act give job security to deputies but in return the deputies give up the right to run for partisan office. Bruce complained that the law makes no sense, is unfair, and he wants it changed.

Next, Bruce pushed for Jarnagin to agree not to fill the three deputy positions and to hold the jobs open until after the election if necessary. Jarnagin said that he could not do that. Bruce then asked if the county could at least continue to pay insurance for the men until some future date. County Mayor David Purkey spoke up and said that as County Mayor he is in charge of insurance and he could continue their insurance as he had done before for other individuals. 

Now I am sitting there thinking, just a minute, buster, you can't violate the terms of the insurance contract just because you are "in charge" of insurance.  County Attorney Cantwell said nothing in response to Mayor Purkey's assertion that he could take care of continuing to provide insurance for employees that had been terminated. Thankfully, Commissioner Baker spoke up and asked Cantwell if the county really could pay insurance for employees who had been terminated. Cantwell said that the insurance contract would determine who is a  full-time employee and who is eligible for county insurance. 

[Neither the Mayor nor anyone else can just decide to pick and choose and arbitrarily continue to pay insurance for people who are no longer employees.  The insurance contract does matter.  County Attorney Cantwell said nothing about Mayor Purkey's admission that he (Purkey) had continued county insurance for certain people in the past or Purkey's claim that he could continue insurance for the three deputies with a wave of the Mayoral hand.  Of course, terminated employees may have the option of continuing insurance coverage for a period of time under COBRA provisions.]

After all was said and done, Ricky Bruce was right about one thing--the situation was handled poorly.

Apparently, County Attorney Rusty Cantwell and the Civil Service Board and Sheriff Jarnagin and the deputies thought that they could get around the Civil Service Act if the deputies took a leave of absence to run for office despite two AG opinions (October 2009 and January 2010) that said when you announce for office you have violated the civil service act and must be terminated--and that added that the Federal Hatch Act may also prohibit the deputies from running for partisan office.

Then the more detailed third AG's opinion came out on March 11, 2010, saying that the Civil Service Act and the Federal Hatch Act may separately or together prohibit deputies from running for partisan elected office. The third AG's opinion specifically added that taking a leave of absence doesn't make it OK for deputies covered by civil service to run for office. It also mentioned that it didn't matter whether the deputy was running for office in his own or another county.

Rusty pointed out that the civil service board's agreement with the Sheriff to break the law by putting the men on leave is void. 

Cantwell advised Jarnagin in writing on March 16 that Jarnagin had to follow the law and had to terminate the men if they did not resign.

It was an interesting evening.

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