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Learning from Andy and Barney

by Jim Longworth

For many of us, “The Andy Griffith Show” is the greatest TV program of all time. That’s because it was about relationships. There was real chemistry between Sheriff Andy Taylor and his deputy, Barney Fife, and though they had their share of spats over the years, they always had each other’s backs. Unfortunately, that kind of relationship between sheriff and deputy can be a rare commodity in real life. Today it is commonplace for deputies to openly criticize their boss, campaign for the sheriff’s political opponent and even run against their sheriff.

Not surprisingly, with mounting disloyalty and animosity comes increasing litigation, often times based on First Amendment rights which have been interpreted to protect political campaigning as free speech. But that defense doesn’t always hold up, particularly in light of a 2012 decision by the 11th Court of Appeals. In that case, an employee in a county clerk’s office was fired after running against the clerk. According to AELE. org, the court held that “an elected official may fire an immediate subordinate for opposing her in an election without violating the First Amendment.” Regardless, grievances are no longer confined to freedom of speech issues.

Last week, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by former deputy Michael Russell against Sheriff Bill Schatzman. The board agreed to pay Russell $96,000 to drop the suit. Russell, a veteran, alleged that he was fired for purchasing a raffle ticket at a fundraising rally for Dave Griffith who was running against Schatzman. But Russell didn’t hide behind the First Amendment. Instead he claimed that the sheriff had violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which protects veterans from being fired without cause within one year after returning to their job from active duty. Schatzman denied Russell’s allegation.

The stated purpose of USERRA is to make sure that “personnel who serve or who have served in the Armed Forces… 1.) are not disadvantaged in their civilian careers because of their service; 2.) are promptly reemployed in their civilian jobs upon their return from duty, and; 3.) are not discriminated against in employment based on past, present, or future military service.” In other words, USERRA protects our brave soldiers against employers who penalize them for leaving work to fight for our country. That’s a good thing, but it may not necessarily be relevant to cases in which a deputy is fired by his sheriff.

To muddy the waters further, terms of Forsyth’s settlement forbid Schatzman from stating that Russell’s termination was the result of disciplinary proceedings, or for performance-related reasons.

Moreover, Schatzman is not allowed to comment on the settlement itself. That means Russell could have been an exemplary employee and Schatzman broke the law. Or it could mean Russell was a screw-up and Schatzman was justified in the firing. Or it could be something else entirely. Either way we’ll never know. But we should know, because it was our taxes that just paid Russell $96,000. And since those of us who comment on the news have been denied access to the nuances in this case, we are left to speculate and opine based on the limited information available. So here’s my take.

Sheriffs are not like other employers. Sheriffs are not store managers or building contractors. Sheriffs are engaged in protecting the public, and supervising men and women who sometimes face life-and-death situations. Because of that, a sheriff needs to be able to count on his guys. He needs to know they are in lock-step with his orders, and can be trusted to protect the public as well as each other. A sheriff is duly elected by the people, and he must expect and demand total loyalty from the deputies who serve at his pleasure. Certainly a deputy should be allowed to have his own political views, but if his views contradict those of his boss, then he should keep those views to himself. If a deputy wants to campaign for an opponent of the sheriff, or wishes to run against the sheriff, that’s okay too, but he should resign from the force before doing so. To do otherwise can result in a divided and distracted team. As a soldier, Russell knows this all too well. Whether in the military or in law enforcement, you agree to follow the leader, and if you’re not willing to do that, you get out or you get tossed out.

It’s possible that increasing litigation by deputies, and settlements like the one last week can lead to sheriffs becoming reticent to make command decisions for fear of being sued, and that’s not good for any of us. I admire deputies for the work they do and the risks they take, but they need to remember one thing. Barney would never sue Andy.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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