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New sheriff facing realities of public office

POSTED: March 3, 2013 8:00 a.m.
 

Newly elected Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper has encountered a painful reality about service in public office: It’s a lot easier to talk about what you want to do while campaigning than actually getting things done once elected.

He’s certainly not alone; it’s a fact of life virtually every office holder faces at one time or another.

Twice last week Piper found himself challenged as he attempted to fulfill promises made on the campaign trail.

When seeking office Piper promised to revamp portions of the sheriff’s operation as a means of saving money, and last month did just that, restructuring to move some personnel into different jobs and completely eliminating other positions as part of the process. As a result, 11 employees lost their jobs.

Last week, those 11 officially requested reinstatement, a potential first step to a hearing before the county’s civil service board. They question whether the jobs were eliminated as part of a true restructuring, or whether perhaps politics, or even age, played a role in determining which employees found themselves unemployed.

These aren’t the first terminations from county employment to result in appeals and a possible civic service process, and they won’t be the last. The county has specific rules and policies related to the termination of employees and the elimination of jobs, and we’ll leave it up to the process in place to decide the merits of the appeals that have been filed.

On the heels of the job reduction challenge, Piper found himself in the midst of a different questioning of the sheriff’s authority.

As part of the restructuring, the sheriff did away with the department’s mounted patrol unit and sent the unit’s four horses to Savannah for law enforcement use in that coastal city. In doing so, he made good on another campaign promise.

His authority to give the horses to another agency was challenged last week, however, by a member of the county’s board of commissioners, who put forth the argument that the sheriff did not have the authority to get rid of county owned assets on his own, but needed commission approval to do so.

The horses were not purchased through local funding approved by the commissioners, adding to the debate over which elected officials ultimately have responsibility for deciding their fate. Three of the horses had been purchased by drug seizure money, and the fourth was donated for use.

The great horse debate ultimately will find a resolution, and we suspect it will not be the last time the new sheriff finds himself at odds with one or more members of the county commission. In virtually every county in the state there is a tenuous relationship between the two public offices due to the fact sheriffs are constitutional officers required to perform certain duties, while commissioners hold the budget purse strings and decide whether money is to be made available for doing them.

The turf war over the disposition of the horses needs to be brought to a quick and amicable end before it festers into something more serious than it needs to be. The employee appeals process has begun and has to play itself out before any conclusions about the department restructuring can be reached.

But one thing is for sure: If he didn’t before, Sheriff Piper now knows that it’s defintiely easier to make campaign promises than it is to keep them.

 

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