By Daniel Silliman
Asking for an across-the-board continuance of all cases, the sheriff's legal advisor accused the civil service board of being a political shill.
In a letter delivered to the board and read aloud at last week's hearings, attorney Jerry Wilson said the board's "deliberations have been used as part of a deliberate scheme to usurp or otherwise undermine the authority of the Sheriff of Clayton County."
Wilson wrote that the board, hearing the grievances and appeals of sheriff's office employees, has been manipulated and used as a "political pawn," by enemies of Sheriff Victor Hill.
The letter comes three months after the sheriff's last legal advisor, Andres Marierose, testified before the board that the sheriff instructed him to ignore civil service rulings.
Marierose, under oath and being cross-examined, said "there have been decisions that have come down from the board for us to reverse an action, and the sheriff said he wasn't going to do it ... He would just not do it."
Marierose resigned from the office by the end of that week.
Wilson and other attorney's representing the sheriff have since assured the five-member civil service board that the office wants to fully comply with the Civil Service Act. Last week's letter reiterated that the sheriff "is committed to full compliance," but then described the board's actions as "tainted," and its hearings as full of "political hostility and manipulation."
Larry Bartlett, chairman of the civil service board and a former officer in the sheriff's administration, said the letter is "a bunch of unfounded allegations."
"We have bent over backwards to try to be fair to all parties," Bartlett said.
Wilson's letter alleged two specific problems with the board: One, Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell, who has a history of clashing with Hill, has too much influence with the board. Two, the board has heard grievances and appeals without allowing the sheriff's office to attempt to resolve issues "in-house."
The board's attorney, Joe Harris, said a review of the civil service board's rulings shows it hasn't been influenced by politics. In one day last week, the board ruled against a firing by the sheriff's office and also ruled against a firing by the Board of Commissioners.
"They've been right down the middle," Harris said, "and fair to both sides, and that's their job."
He said appeals and grievances from the sheriff's office employees have been treated differently than those from other offices and agencies, but that's because the legal advisor asked to have it that way.
When the Personnel Department receives a grievance or an appeal of an employment decision, Director Renee Bright or one of her assistants attempts to talk to the parties involved, to see if something can be worked out informally, Harris said.
"She was told, 'Don't bother, just put it on the agenda,'" Harris said.
Since then, the number of cases before the board has increased substantially.
Harris said the board used to be able to deal with everything on the agenda in one half-day session per month, but now is in session for two, and sometimes three days, per month. The board met for two days in June, and on the second day was reportedly still hearing a case after 9 p.m.
Of the almost 50 cases before the board, with hearings backed up into the fall, roughly 90 percent of them are complaints filed by sheriff's office employees.
Wilson has said the sheriff's office is reversing that policy against attempting to solve grievances internally, and cites that in the letter as a reason why all of its employees' hearings should be suspended.
Harris is replying with a letter, he said, rejecting the request.
"The board is not just going to put a blanket moratorium on all appeals, that's not fair to the employees," he said. "Everything's got to be done on a case-by-case basis."