CEDAR CITY – The gallery of the Iron County 5th District courtroom was a wall-to-wall earth tone background of tan and green, behind the glimmer of nearly 50 golden badges representing various levels of service within the Iron County Sheriff’s Office – all there to show support for their colleague, Deputy Lt. Jody Edwards.
The Wednesday morning hearing was to determine whether or not Iron County would be required to uphold a July decision made by the Career Services Council that Edwards’ was wrongfully terminated from the Sheriff’s Office when County Commissioners sold the Iron County Ambulance service in March, eliminating his position in the process.
At the time of the sale, Edwards was acting lieutenant over emergency medical services.
The council’s final decision required county officials to reinstate Edwards to a position with the Iron County Sheriff’s Office and to retroactively pay all salary and benefits to the date when his position was terminated in April.
When he agreed to the county’s request to take over the then-failing ambulance service in 2012, Sheriff Mark Gower said, he told commissioners he would have to appoint one of his men to run it. The position was filled through an application process through the Sheriff’s Office – three applied, Edwards was hired.
Wednesday’s hearing was presided over by 4th District Court Judge M. James Brady in the interest of impartiality.
Brady began by asking both parties in the court to address what standard they believed he should consider when deliberating on his decision and why they believed it applies to Edwards’ case. He also noted that issues were raised about whether or not the Career Services Council was within its jurisdictional boundaries to review a reduction-in-force case.
The idea that Career Services Council was not within its jurisdiction was absurd, Defense Attorney Scott Burns said, addressing the court. It amounted to nothing more than sour grapes on behalf of the county, he said, because they were angry that the vote didn’t swing in their favor.
It is a bit incredulous, your honor, that at this point Iron County is now saying that ‘We set up the rules, here’s what time the game will start, here’s who’s going to kick off first, here’s how it’s going to be handled,’ and then when the game was over and they lost, they claim that, ‘That wasn’t the game at all,’ and we were playing baseball as opposed to football.
The long road that led Edwards to the mercy of Career Services Council was paved by the county in the first place, he said. After receiving notice of termination four days before his job closed, Burns said, Edwards was given only 10 days to file an appeal – which he did.
The appeal response from the county directed Edwards to meet with the sheriff, who was his immediate supervisor and still wanted Edwards on the force, Burns said. At that point, Burns said, Edwards was instructed to file an appeal with the County Commission directly – an appeal that resulted in the decision to terminate being upheld.
“They, of course, upheld the termination because it was their decision in the beginning,” Burns said. “And then they said, ‘Now you can appeal to the Career Service Council – that’s your final appeal.’”
The long, arduous process was established by the county in the first place, Burns said, following the statement with the question: How, then, can the county question the jurisdiction of a review board that was set in place by their own policies and procedures?
The county’s private attorney from Salt Lake City, Susan Dunn of Dunn and Dunn, pointed out that when the ambulance service was sold, an entire department of 70 people lost their positions with the county. Edwards’ position was created for the sole purpose of managing the ambulance service, she said, and when the ambulance service was sold, there was no longer a need for his position.
“It was a position that was created strictly – and this is very important, as well – it was created strictly to be the managing officer in charge of the ambulance service,” Dunn said. “This was not an existing position that the duties were expanded or anything like that – this was a separate and distinct position.”
Burns argued that the “separate and distinct position” required Edwards to continue to put on an Iron County deputy’s uniform every single day for work, that his paycheck continued to have funds withdrawn for benefits and retirement monies through the Iron County Sheriff’s Office, and that Edwards continued to perform tasks and duties for the Sheriff’s Office that were not related to the ambulance service in any way.
Since filing his appeal, Dunn said, there have been multiple offers to reinstate Edwards into a new position, but he has turned all of them down. Dunn argued that the county contends Edwards is only interested in returning to his position as lieutenant and no other option will satisfy him, or he would have considered at least one of the two positions that are currently on the table.
“When he was RIF’ed (reduction-in-force), he was told he could be on the recall registry,” Dunn said. “He chose not to apply for that. He chose not to apply for positions that were available at that time. He has not applied for the two that are available now.”
There is a corporal position and a sergeant detective position available currently, she said, and the Iron County Commissioners offered to put him on the consideration list for either. They would waive any requirements of the reduction in force policy that Mr. Edwards had not met, Dunn said, and then it would be up to Sheriff Gower to decide where, or if, to place him.
The actual positions available with the Iron County Sheriff’s Office currently are corporal and deputy patrolman. (See ed. note)
Edwards did not accept the offer, Burns said, because it would nullify the appeal that is currently in place and leave his client ineligible to receive back pay, benefits and possibly retirement that Edwards worked 22 years for so far.
Edwards is not looking for his specific position in charge of the ambulance service back, as insinuated by the plaintiff, Burns said, but rather to maintain his place as a sheriff’s deputy in a role that is worthwhile.
If an employee were to be RIF’ed in the first place, Gower said, it should have been brought to him and he should have been allowed to make the choice of who was to go in his office as the elected official who is over said office.
By going over his head, choosing whom to let go and not consulting him, Gower said, his office lost a valuable asset whom the county has spent the better part of two decades investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in training and educating.
“They let a guy go that’s an experienced homicide investigator,” Gower said. “He knows cop work, he knows how to be a great cop, a great sheriff’s deputy – and then they just take that big investment and they just throw it away and not even looking at all he brings to the table.”
One frustrated deputy in the gallery stated that with the money the county has spent on the private attorneys to fight Edwards’ appeal, they could have easily just paid for him to come back to the Sheriff’s Office.
As both parties wound down their positions, James thanked them for their time and explained how the process ahead would work. Taking into strong consideration the information shared in court Wednesday, James said, he would re-examine the information from the background of the case files and write a final judgement for them within two weeks.
He will make his decision based solely on whether or not the Career Services Council was allowed to make the determination it did and if the decision holds up under the letter of the law, James said. Anything beyond that having to do with the case will be looked at another time by another judge, he said.
Before stepping down, James pointed out that he had a great cause for concern that one reason the county gave for not following through with the Career Services Council’s decision was that there wasn’t enough money in the budget to cover Edwards’ back-owed salary.
“I am concerned by the argument that the county has a budget and because it has a budget it has to live within that budget,” James said. “I think that ignores the reality of a practicing county commission. … Budgets are nothing more than a projection and they cannot accurately project the amount of revenue they are going to receive and they cannot accurately project the amount of expenditures they are going to have.”
There are mechanisms in place to allow county commissioners to make adjustments for additional expenditures, James said, and to take the position that they “cannot” comply with the request of the Career Services Council strongly diminishes the effectiveness of the council.
“I doubt the county would say, ‘We’ve received all the revenue we’ve anticipated and, therefore, any additional revenue that comes in this year we are not going to accept,’” James said. “They also can’t say, ‘We’ve incurred all of the liabilities we’ve anticipated; therefore, we cannot accept any additional liabilities and won’t pay them.’ That’s not the reality, and that’s not the law.”
Ed. note: Available positions clarified.
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