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Deal struck in sheriff furor

By Justin Boron

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill and the Board of Commissioners reached an agreement Wednesday that maneuvers the conflict surrounding the 27 reinstated sheriff's employees around a court hearing scheduled for Friday.

Lawyers for each side signed a consent order Wednesday afternoon in which Hill agrees to treat the rehired deputies as civil service employees until the question of their protection is answered by a judge, said County Attorney Don Comer.

Pay and insurance benefits will be maintained, he said.

Once Hill agreed to those terms, there was nothing left for the county to do, Comer said.

"We've accomplished what we set out to do," he said.

What the agreement does not stipulate is the rank and position at which each returning employee will be placed, he said.

As for the civil service question, he said the county is discussing the pursuit of a declaratory judgment in which a Superior Court judge would make a decision based on legal briefs filed by Hill's and the Board of Commissioners' attorneys.

But if the county gets no resolution on the matter, Harlan Miller, the rehired employees' attorney, said he would raise the question as part of a federal lawsuit, which cites "damaged reputations and diminished standing in the community" as part of a "race, age, and politically inspired plot."

County commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he will not be satisfied until the civil service question is answered but added he is optimistic there would be a favorable outcome.

"I'm hopeful that we will have a peaceful work environment," he said.

While attorneys for Hill and the county worked to streamline the consent order, the reinstated employees awaited notice of where, when, and how they were to return to work.

Miller said he requested the circumstances under which the employees would return but was denied by Hill's legal team.

Evan Kaine, Hill's attorney, said the deputies were notified individually Tuesday night and would be treated like any other deputy with a "no call, no show."

He said they were to report to Chief Deputy William Cassells' office.

The employees' dismissal nearly two weeks ago has spurred tremendous concern over the civil service status of all the sheriff's employees, Bell said.

Hill contends each county department must directly request the protection for their employees, which, if a judge finds it to be true, could impact other employees in the Sheriff's Office.

But Grady Dukes, the staff attorney for the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, said Hill is referring to the wrong law.

The non-profit association, which provides legal assistance to nearly 20,000 officers, announced Tuesday it would intervene on behalf of the sheriff's employees dismissed by hill.

In 1965, Dukes said the employees of several Clayton County government departments opted into a civil service program, stemming from state legislation in 1963.

The sheriff's employees were one of those departments, he said.

Clayton County deputies aren't the only ones who have been subject to the vagaries of civil service protection, said Jack Roberts, president of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association.

In 1993 an incoming Wayne County sheriff fired most of the deputies in the department, raising similar questions about civil service protection, he said.

After a long fought legal battle, the deputies were reinstated, Roberts said.

He said there is an dire need to satisfy the uncertainty around civil service because it subjects deputies to the political ambition of the sheriff.

"It's not unusual for incumbent sheriffs to require deputies to work in their re-election campaigns and to fire those who don't support the sheriff's re-election," Dukes said.

Duke said he plans to pursue state legislation that would place all sheriff's deputies under a civil service system.

"(The sheriff's reorganization power) is an archaic medieval system that should have been done away with 100 years ago," he said.