UPDATED:Underwood attorney: 911 issue going to court

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By Travis Jenkins


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An initial court hearing on the issue of who controls 911 has been set for next month.
Last Tuesday, Chester County Council voted to move the county's 911 operations out of the law enforcement center and back into the old armory on Ella St., which served as the operation's home for many years. The council voted 4-3 (with County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey casting the deciding vote) to make the move following a lengthy executive session.
"I think the best thing for it is to stand on its own," Roddey said.
Roddey said he thinks 911 simply operated more efficiently before moving to its current location on Dawson Drive in the law enforcement building.
"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 the move would take about a month, was his idea and would cost less than $20,000. He said he nearly made the move last year but decided to wait a bit longer. He said it was always left open as a possibility that 911 could return to the armory after a "trial period" on Dawson Drive.
Last 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. Senn makes a continuing case throughout the three-page letter that 911 is under and should remain under the council of Underwood. She says, for example, 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'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." She then said that 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."
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.
Roddey said the pending move would take 911 employees out from under the sheriff's supervision, but said there was nothing illegal or wrong about the move. He cited a recent court decision in a 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 from Senn, saying that Senn had only called Winters to discuss some of its contents.
On Tuesday morning, Senn e-mailed The News & Reporter to refute Roddey's assertion.
"In the Clarendon case, the sheriff agreed to give E-911 control to the county on a trial basis but with a contract saying that he could take the system back if it was not operating smoothly.  Per the complaint in that case, the sheriff filed suit because terrible mistakes were being made which threatened the lives of citizens in Clarendon.  We were ready to argue the case when a new administrator came on board.  The sheriff agreed that with a new county administrator in place, he would work with that person to see if E-911 services ran more smoothly.  The sheriff then monitored E-911 for safety and improvements.  If there had been none, we would have fought to take E-911 back per the contract we had with the county.  After a year of monitoring, the sheriff of Clarendon ceded control because the new manager and new personnel did a good job," Senn said.
Senn said she believes the people of Chester County elected Underwood to run the sheriff's office, which includes 911.
"They did not elect Mr. Roddey to that position," she said.
Senn said that the issue will be in court soon, noting "we have a hearing before Judge Ernest Kinard on December 3rd, 2013."
According to court documents obtained by The News & Reporter, the county served Underwood with paperwork in the case of "Chester County vs. Chester County Sheriff's Office" on November 15. The papers note, in part "Chester County Council voted on October 5, 2009, at a duly called meeting, to transfer the Emergency 911 department to the purview of the Chester County Sheriff's Office." Several portions of the state code of laws are cited, including a portion noting that a governing body has the authority to "establish such agencies, departments, boards, commissions and positions in the county as may be necessary and proper to provide services of local concern for public purposes, to prescribe the functions thereof and to regulate, modify, merge or abolish any such agencies, departments, boards, commissions and positions, except as otherwise provided for in this title" and "nothing in the section shall be construed as a limitation on the authority of a(n) enforcement officer as provided in Section 4-9-145, to provide other services not directly related to law enforcement, to exercise the powers conferred by general law upon counties to protect the public health, safety and general welfare of the community...(county council) may provide for E-911 services as provided for in Chapter 47 of Title 23; provided, however, that access to criminal records databases and other similar restricted databases relating to law enforcement functions must remain under the supervision of the sheriff or his designee unless law enforcement functions are transferred to a county police department pursuant to a referendum." Further, "under the supervisor form of government, the county supervisor has the responsibility of the day to day operations of the county, including without limitation 'direct and coordinate operational agencies and administrative activities of the county government." It is then surmised "this includes, without limitation, Emergency 911 services."

The case is made that Title 23 of the state code of laws "does not grant the authority to the county sheriff to control or continue to control the Emergency 911 department. In bold print is a portion of the state code which states that though services available under a 911 system include law enforcement, fire and emergency service, other emergency and emergency personnel services "may be incorporated into the 911 system at the discretion of the local government being served by the system."

According to the documents, the county told the Underwood that all 911 equipment would be moved within 30 days without disruption to the operations or communication system of the sheriff's office. On Nov. 13, the documents say an email dispatch from the sheriff's office was sent to all 911 equipment vendors informing them Underwood remained in control and that no changes, moves or other work were authorized on the 911 system. The 911 director was terminated that same day, with the termination letter including "a notice of tresspass for the building housing both the sheriff's office and the 911 equipment."

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