UPDATED: Underwood attorney: County has no authority over 911

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Roddey says recent court action favors county position

By Travis Jenkins

An attorney for Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood says the county has no right or authority to move 911 or assume any authority over it.
On Tuesday morning, Chester County Council had a special called meeting at which a vote passed to move the county's 911 services out of the law enforcement building and back into its former location in the old Armory on Ella St. The vote was 4-3, with Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey breaking a 3-3 tie. Also voting in the majority were Councilmen Joe Branham, Brad Jordan and Archie Lucas. Alex Oliphant, Mary Guy and John Wayne Holcombe opposed the measure. The 911 operations were moved when the new law enforcement center was opened a few years ago. Roddey said he'd been considering the idea of moving it back for more than a year. He said 911 works best when it is a stand-alone entity.
"We put it out there and it doesn't work as well," Roddey said. "It's not the right fit. It needs to be by itself."
Roddey said it had always been a possibility that 911 would move back. He said money for the move is already in the budget and called rumors of the move costing more than $300,000 "ridiculous." At last Monday night's regular meeting of council, Roddey said he would be "disappointed" if the project cost more than $20,000.
On Tuesday night, Underwood forwarded a letter to the News & Reporter. The letter is from attorney Sandra Senn, is printed on "Senn Legal LLC Attorneys At Law" letterhead and is addressed to Chester County Attorney Joanie Winters. The letter is dated Nov. 4, 2013.
Senn seems to allude to last Monday's council meeting where personnel issues were to be discussed in executive session.
"Thank you for agreeing to contact me if the issue comes up regarding the Chester dispatch communications at the council meeting tonight. I am sure you agree that the administration and control of Chester's E-911 services and its twenty employees is a very important public safety issue. Therefore, at the very least, due process should be afforded the sheriff who controls E-911 at this juncture. If this issue is to be addressed by council or the administrator and attempted changes made, then the matter should properly be placed on an agenda," the letter says.
Senn goes on to say that if an employment issue relevant to the E-911 or Chester County Animal Control comes up "the current chain of command has them answering to the sheriff...therefore, as structured, those employees are currently his."
Senn says a study of county ordinances does not turn up a clear distinction of whether 911/dispatch or animal control fall under the administrator or sheriff. "However, pursuant to the user agreement with SLED, control falls squarely under the sheriff, an arrangement which has also been agreed upon by the other local agencies serviced by your county wide dispatch system."
Senn's letter says that if 911/dispatch or animal control services are to be switched back to the county, the move must be approved by SLED "and it has not been."
"Thus, the county is not even in a position to assume control of E-911, even if the sheriff agreed to allow it. Furthermore, Sheriff Underwood is informed and believes that the county has used inmate labor without his knowledge to prepare the former dispatch control center for reuse. Again, we do not believe the county would have such authority at this point," the letter says.
Senn asks Winters about documents regarding "the transfer of dispatch duties from your administrator to the sheriff's department in the past." Senn said there must be papers or contracts formally documenting when and how "the baton was passed to Sheriff Underwood's predecessor to take control of E-911 and Animal Control. As county attorney, I hope that you are aware of what documentation exists in this regard." Senn asked that the related documents be passed along to her.
"If there is no agreement or contract, then I believe that the weight of the legislation that I can find goes in favor of the sheriff running E-911," Senn says in the letter.
Senn quotes various portions of the Home Rule Act, dealing with county and rural police, most notably a 1991 amendment to the act reading "Any county governing body may by ordinance abolish a rural or other county police system...and devolve the powers and duties of the system upon the county sheriff." The court case "Roton v. Sparks" is also cited.
"The court stated 'the argument that the Home Rule Act, providing for county government, grants authority to remove custody of the county jail from the sheriff is without merit.'"
The role of an administrator in an administrator form of government is also detailed, saying "the county administrator shall exercise no authority over any elected officials of the county whose offices were created by the Constitution of by the general law of the State."
Senn then cautions the county not to make a move regarding 911.
"I would hope that the administrator and council would not rush to action on this matter, especially when the physical equipment necessary to operate E-911 is located securely at the sheriff's office and will not be handed over without a judge's order. This is because efficient management systems can literally mean the difference between life and death...Any attempt to restructure the sheriff's office by altering the status of the personnel members who work for him will be met with a motion of injunctive relief which is the marching order I have been given by the Sheriff's Association."
Senn closes by expressing a hope that the matter can be resolved to "everyone's mutual satisfaction."
Underwood indicated to the News & Reporter a few weeks ago that he disagreed with any attempt to move 911, deeming it unnecessary and a waste of money.
Roddey said the pending move would take 911 employees out from under the sheriff's supervision, but said there was nothing improper or illegal about the move. Roddey cited a recent court decision in a very similar case in Clarendon County. In that case, a judge ruled in favor of the county, saying the sheriff did not control or have authority over 911. Roddey also said neither he nor Winters have actually received the letter referenced above, saying that Senn had only called Winters to discuss some of its contents.


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