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19 officers: 'Sheriff's Seven' settlement wrong

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Nineteen Clayton County police officers appeared before the county's Civil Service Board Tuesday, to hear their lawyer argue they had been discriminated against, when seven sheriff's deputies were given police department positions.

The officer's lawyer, Grady Duke, argued that the County's Board of Commissioners improperly created lieutenants' positions for the "Sheriff's Seven," during the settlement of their suit against Sheriff Victor Hill.

Duke, a lawyer affiliated with the Police Benevolent Association, told the board that the county's move clearly violated the Civil Service rules and regulations, because the newly created and vacant positions were not advertised, and the deputies did not have the required five years of Police Department experience to be given the seven spots.

"The officers [filing complaints] are now in the position," Duke said, "where they were blocked from promotions that they should have had, in positions that were created."

Duke said the treatment amounted to discrimination, though there was no racial element involved, and said the commissioners acted "willy-nilly," without regard to the rules.

The county's lawyer, Pamala Everett, countered that no one is owed promotion, and said that there was no evidence of discrimination.

"There is no right, vested in anyone, to be promoted," Everett said. "There was no intention, on [the commissioners'] part, to discriminate against any of the police officers in this department."

The seven, former sheriff's deputies were given lieutenants positions in July. The county made the offer as part of a package dealing with the deputies' suit against the sheriff, where they alleged they were inappropriately fired on Hill's first day in office. When fired, the seven deputies held the rank of lieutenant, in the sheriff's office.

None of the deputies replaced police lieutenants. One was put in charge of the Code Enforcement Division, replacing a civilian position. Another was placed over the records department, doing a job which had previously been done by a sergeant. In Clayton County, a lieutenants' pay starts at more than $40,000 per year.

The 19 officers filing the complaints were all members of the Police Benevolent Association, and currently hold ranks including lieutenant, sergeant and officer.

Police Chief Jeff Turner testified, at the hearing, that paperwork was filled out to transfer the lieutenants. "It wasn't a traditional transfer," Turner said. "I found out later it was done improperly."

Since the seven positions still exist in the sheriff's office, the move did not qualify as a transfer, but actually amounted to the creation of new positions.

County Personnel Director Renee Bright testified, during the hearing, that the positions were created for the specific individuals.

Turner was ordered to accept the seven as lieutenants, and only had discretion in where he wanted to place them, he said. At no time was he given the opportunity to promote his sergeants to the newly created lieutenant positions.

Under normal circumstances, the deputies would not have been eligible for the positions they now hold, though Turner said they are qualified to do the jobs they've been given.

According to the Civil Service Board rules and regulations, a promotion to lieutenant, in the police department, requires a minimum of five years experience in the department, three as an officer and two as a sergeant.

The board of commissioners could have made an exception to the rules, Duke said, by passing enabling legislation or a resolution. Nothing of that sort was done, however.

"Typically," Renee Bright said, "they would use some sort of ordinance, but they have the authority."

Everett argued that the county officials were responding to an extreme situation which was costing a lot of money and they used their discretion. "The cost [of the law suit] to the county was high, and the board of commissioners chose, in their discretion, to settle it," Everett said. She asked the Civil Service Board to uphold the commissioner's decision.

Duke said the idea that the county government could ignore it's own regulations was disturbing, and argued that "two wrongs don't make a right."

After the testimony, in an interview, Turner said that promotions are always a touchy issue, in a police department. He said if he were in the officer's position, he might have done the same thing.

"If you think you've been done wrong, stand up for your rights," he said. When Turner was a lieutenant, he sued the department for racial discrimination in promotions.

Turner said that when the officers told him what they were going to do, he asked them to make sure it wasn't personal, and it didn't become a circus.

The chief said he believed the officers were being professional, about the proceedings, but he worried that there was no resolution to the situation that didn't end in a law suit costing the county money.

The Civil Service Board decided, after a discussion in executive session, to advise the county to follow its own rules.

Frank Thomas, a Police Benevolent Association member and one of the officers who filed a complaint, said the ruling was a clear win for the officers. It was less clear, he said, how the situation would be worked out.

Duke and the Civil Service Board's attorney are expected to meet and discuss possible solutions.