Forsyth County commissioners agreed to modify a civil service board rule to expressly allow Constitutional officers to have an attorney represent them during appeal hearings.
After mulling over the issue at a previous work session, the commission invited Sheriff Duane Piper to talk about his reasoning for wanting to allow an attorney regardless of what the employee who is appealing chooses.
The county modified the policy in 2011 to state that if an employee does not hire an attorney for a civil service hearing, the county attorney will not represent Forsyth.
Employees covered under civil service protection, such as sheriff’s deputies, who are disciplined or fired may appeal the action before the three-member panel under specific circumstances.
Piper said Tuesday that he believes it’s the “responsibility of the Constitutional officer to decide if he thinks it serves the public’s interest to use counsel or not use counsel in a given situation.”
The commission agreed with his request in a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Todd Levent absent. Levent arrived later in the meeting.
Commissioners asked their attorney to draft a revision to the policy.
Constitutional officers are elected officials with powers and duties expressly set in the state Constitution. In Forsyth County, they include the sheriff, clerk of the Superior Court, Probate Court judge, sheriff and tax commissioner.
A question about the new policy arose earlier this month when the sheriff’s office wrote a letter stating it planned to have agency counsel present for a July 11 hearing, though the former employee who was appealing would not.
Since the sheriff’s office uses a different attorney than the county, the agency felt the provision didn’t apply.
The sheriff's office hired Brian Hansford to represent the agency this year, replacing previous counsel Ken Jarrard, who represents the county commission and most other county departments and entities.
The civil service board ruled that the intent of the policy applied for all county entities. Chairman Terry Smith said the 2011 policy change was largely intended to reduce the growing costs of hearings due to legal fees.
Following its decision, the panel postponed until Aug. 8 the appeal hearing for former deputy Walter Skowronski.
Skowronski is appealing his April termination by the sheriff’s office.
Piper said Tuesday that the request to modify the civil service board policy isn’t because of Skowronski’s appeal, and the agency would not seek to delay that hearing until the attorney modification is effective.
“That hearing can go ahead and we will not use counsel for that hearing,” Piper said. “It’s not this specific case that I’m concerned with. It’s going forward that the sheriff’s office not be limited by outside force on whether or not we can use counsel.”
He added that the expense of having an attorney at a hearing would be covered under the sheriff’s office budget.