County stays mum about deputy’s dismissal

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 31, 2011

By Shelley Smith
SALISBURY ó Rowan County officials did not respond to Post requests Tuesday for clarification on whether a recently fired deputy was terminated for disciplinary reasons.
Meanwhile, the county attorney has advised county commissioners and others that though deputies are considered ěat willî employees, a letter stating the reasons for their firing should be created and made public if the termination is a disciplinary action.
At the request of the Post, the Sheriffís Office released a memo Friday that had been given to the deputy, John Roach, upon his firing. Dated May 19 and initialed by Sheriff Kevin Auten, the memo said:
ěAs of today Thursday, May 19, 2011, your services are no longer required at the Rowan County Sheriffís Office. All county owned equipment should be returned immediately.î
The Post requested more information, specifically a letter outlining the reasons for Roachís termination if it was for disciplinary reasons, a requirement under a state law that went into effect Oct. 1.
County attorney Jay Dees responded Friday that such letters arenít required for deputies, who are considered ěat willî employees serving at the pleasure of county sheriffs, and who can be fired with or without cause.
In November, however, the state Attorney Generalís Office, in an advisory opinion, said the new law requires public agencies to create a dismissal letter for every employee fired for disciplinary reasons, ěincluding employees who are not otherwise entitled to such formal notification.î
Amanda Martin, an attorney for the Salisbury Post and the N.C. Press Association, said Tuesday that means so-called ěat willî employees.
ěIn our opinion, dismissal letters are required regardless of whether the dismissed employee is a state career employee or not,î Martin said.
Dees responded on Tuesday that he ěwill respectfully disagree at this point, based on the distinction that no change has been made as to whether sworn deputies are entitled to specific notice of dismissal that contains specific reasons for the dismissal.î
Even so, in an opinion sent to county commissioners, Auten and County Manager Gary Page after the Postís initial article, Dees wrote that while he believes it is ěa stretchî to apply the new law to at-will employees, he advises the Sheriffís Office to do so.
ěThe sheriff is not required to state reasons for dismissal of sworn deputies,î Dees wrote in his opinion. ěAlthough, where a dismissal is clearly based on conclusions that the dismissal is for disciplinary reasons, wrong-doing or violations of the state law, it is advised that the sheriff generate such a notice and clearly state the reasons therefor.î
Neither Auten nor Dees responded Tuesday to direct questions asking if Roach was fired for disciplinary reasons.
The Post also requested other information about Roachís employment history, including suspensions, promotions and salary. That information had not been provided Tuesday evening.
Auten said a new deputy has been hired to replace Roach, who was a member of the departmentís Special Response Team.
While the county argues that the Sheriffís Office is not subject to the new personnel law, sheriffs across the state have joined with school boards and others in backing legislation that would specifically exempt agencies from providing dismissal letters for ěat willî employees fired for disciplinary reasons.