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'At will' policy at issue in sheriff's race

Sheriff Charlie McDonald and challenger Erik Summey appeared at a candidate forum on April 9. Sheriff Charlie McDonald and challenger Erik Summey appeared at a candidate forum on April 9.

Sheriff Charlie McDonald and challenger Erik Summey disagree on using North Carolina's "employment at will" policy, which allows employers to fire employees for no reason.

In a race that has lacked major differences in law enforcement approaches among three Republican candidates, department morale and the use of North Carolina's "at will" statute giving employers broad authority to fire and demote has become one of the hotter political flashpoints.
The Mountain Chapter of the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association announced that it had endorsed Summey in the May 6 primary election. Also running is North Carolina State Trooper Michael Brown, who also ran in 2002 and 2006.
"We have some issues that are important to us," said chapter President Brandon McGaha. "Some have to do with due process at the sheriff's office, so that if they get accused of things that they have a process to go through" before they're disciplined, demoted or discharged. "They can't be fired for just coming out and voicing what they see in the department."
After McDonald dismissed the PBA as a "liberal group," the organization fired back. McGaha and North Carolina PBA president Randy Byrd both wrote responses to the Hendersonville Lightning, defending the organization and rebutting McDonald's charges.

During a screening process Summey, the Fletcher police chief and former sheriff's officer, "told us he was not going to use the 'at-will' statute," McGaha said. "He was a victim of that under Sheriff Davis and said he wouldn't use it."

Summey, a 17-year sheriff's department veteran, was let go by Sheriff Rick Davis after Davis won the 2006 election. Summey went on to the Buncombe County Sheriff's Department then to the Fletcher Police Department, where he was promoted to assistant chief and then chief.
"The term 'Employment-at-Will' simply means that unless there is a specific law to protect employees or there is an employment contract providing otherwise, then an employer can treat its employees as it sees fit and the employer can discharge an employee at the will of the employer for any reason or no reason at all," North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry says in explanation on her office's website.



Summey won't use 'at-will' as crutch

"I don't know every employee issue and the record is not public knowledge," Summey said. "To say they haven't adhered to due process, I can't say that. I can say you have to rely on your policy or procedure. North Carolina's an at-will state and the sheriff has even more power to hire and fire at will. What I've told the folks that have asked is certainly I will adhere to our policies and I will not use the at-will statute as what I call a crutch to get rid of folks. There are folks don't support me that's their right. I've told folks in different areas and in forums where they've asked, I will give every employee an opportunity and they will be re-signed. They might be reassigned because things do need to be restructured."
Like McDonald, he said firing everyone who may have voted against him would be a costly waste of skill, training and experience.
"I know there's folks that are there that don't support me as sheriff and that's their right," Summey said. "It doesn't make sense and it's not efficient to get rid of folks that have those assets and their experience."
McGaha said a screening panel made up of PBA members from Polk, Buncombe and Henderson counties interviews candidates and makes a recommendation to the chapter's executive board, which makes the final vote. A sergeant with the Hendersonville Police Department, McGaha emphasized that he keeps his role with the PBA walled off from his work with the city. "The endorsement's not from the city," he said.

'They're a liberal group'

McDonald skipped the PBA interview.
"I saw where it was going pretty much when I got the questions in the mail," he said. "I know enough about the organization to know they weren't going to be happy with my answers.... They're a pretty liberal group anyway. The PBA has always been attached to a lot of gun control issues. They've got a tradition of endorsing usually not Republicans unless they're very liberal. I know they've endorsed some of our worst, most liberal presidents."
McDonald said the professional standards policies he put in place when he took office in the wake of a personnel scandal in the Davis administration ensures fair treatment of employees. But he said he would not forswear the power to fire wrongdoers at-will.
"You talk to any business or organization, to be successful the owner and leader has got to have the final say as to who comes and who goes," he said. "Only an idiot gets rid of productive employees that agree with your vision and do a good job."
He acknowledged he used the at-will statute when he declined to swear in some deputies when he took office — a prerogative many elected sheriffs use.
"But since I've been here I don't think there's been anybody let go that didn't know why they were let go," he said. "I care very strongly about who wears our badge or who represents us."
"Here's the bottom line and a lot of people don't understand this," he said. "You have to know that the people closest to you are there for the same purpose and vision that you are."
Unless they're dishonest or outwardly disloyal, qualified deputies ought to be kept on even if they disagree privately with his policies or opinions, McDonald said. But employment protections ought not extend, he said, to deputies who flagrantly violate policy or break the law.
"We've got the best process standards we've ever had in place," he said. "If somebody does something so egregious, I'm just, 'You're outa here. Forget it.'"

PBA rebuts sheriff's statements
In a response, McGaha said McDonald's comments "couldn't be further from the truth. The association does not endorse by political party, but by the issues."
Byrd, the PBA president, also rebutted McDonald's characterization of the organization.
"The sheriff's comment that PBA is 'always attached to a lot of gun control issues' is false," Byrd wrote. "As a division of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, Inc., (SSPBA) we have, in fact, been opposed to gun control as a viable means of reducing crime. ... As to the sheriff's assertion of his personal knowledge that PBA has 'endorsed some of our worst, most liberal presidents,' this is also false."