Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ohio Sherriff loses 911 lawsuit

The Ohio Fifth Circuit Court has ruled that the Delaware County commissioners have control over the county’s public safety communications system, ending an ongoing lawsuit for which the county was paying for attorneys on both sides of the dispute.

A three-judge panel ruled in favor of the commissioners this week, rejecting the arguments of attorneys representing Delaware County Sheriff Walter L. Davis III.

Former county sheriff Al Myers had sued the commissioners in October 2006 for control of the system. In his initial court filing, Myers said by denying him control, the commissioners were preventing him from performing his duty under Ohio law. The commissioners have maintained their emergency management division should have the right to administer the system.

Davis inherited the lawsuit after he was appointed to office in 2007 and decided to continue forward with it. As with Davis, none of the three current commissioners were in office when the lawsuit was initially filed.

Commissioner Todd Hanks said the court’s ruling “vindicated” the board. “It’s my position that the stance taken by the previous administration was the correct position,” Hanks said. “The only ones who have made out here in the long run are the lawyers.”

The county prosecutor’s office usually represents county entities in legal matters, but it asked to be taken off the case in order to avoid a conflict of interest since the office represents both the sheriff and the commissioners.

The appeals court agreed with that request, ordering an outside law firm to be assigned as special prosecutor for the sheriff, and that the firm be paid $150 an hour for its services. The court at that time also appointed a firm to represent the commissioners at $200 an hour. The court at that time further ordered that the commissioners pay for all legal expenses in the case, including the sheriff’s.

The county has since paid just over $142,600 in legal fees associated with the case, according to public records requests.

Monday’s ruling ordered that the costs be equally shared by both sides.

Davis, who had argued that the sheriff’s office was best equipped to manage emergency communication, said that he believed the resolution to the case was a “positive decision for the citizens of Delaware County, who have paid enough for political infighting.”

“Parties that were continuously fighting about this issue have now come to the table to talk. I believe we are all focused on increasing communications and efficiency,” he said.

Both sides said that now that the court case is done, they would sit down and work out how the emergency communications system will be run.

The dispute centered on an exemption in Ohio law that allows county commissioners to maintain control of county emergency communications if they provided public safety communications to cities, townships, villages and other entities within the county before a March 15, 1993 cutoff date. Because the county has maintained a 911 service since before the cutoff date, the commissioners argued the board qualified for the exemption.

Attorneys for the sheriff had argued that a countywide public safety communications system did not exist until 2006 — well after the cutoff date — when the county’s current radio system went online. However, the three-judge panel disagreed. The 911 center, the court ruled, fulfilled the legal definition of a “communications facility” as laid out in Ohio law.

“The exception does not hinge on a particular quality of service or quality of service,” Ohio Fifth Circuit Judge Sheila G. Farmer in the eight-page ruling. Thus, the sheriff “cannot demonstrate and has not demonstrated a clear legal right” to control emergency communications, Farmer wrote.

The fact that the lawsuit was filed by a former sheriff against three commissioners who are no longer in office complicated the situation, Hanks said.

“I think the lawyers were the only people who knew what was going on,” Hicks joked.(info from The Delaware Gazette)

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