Fear Part II: Watch your back
On Jan.19, Superior Court Judge Milton F. Fitch Jr. issued an order allowing — not ordering, as some reported — town employees to file grievances or appeals with the senior resident Superior Court judge in this district.
His concerns were that town employees were being subjected to “violation of personal rights” and “violations of public policy” while the town’s “polices and procedures” were contributing to those violations.
The judge cited “numerous complaints” and new complaints following the filing of petitions by four officers for the removal of the town’s police chief, Gary Britt.
Britt had been suspended while an internal investigation was conducted by the town and the North Carolina League of Municipalities, which underwrites the town’s insurance. Britt was eventually cleared and went back to work.
The officers had claimed a variety of violations of their rights. One was fired and another was allowed to resign rather than be dismissed. All four had taken their complaints to chief resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett.
Fitch noted in his order that a subsequent revision to town policy that would prohibit employees from taking grievances outside the internal chain of command was contrary to the spirit of North Carolina’s constitutional right for citizens to petition for the removal of a sheriff or police chief.
He also cited whistleblower protections for state employees, and matters of public concern and abusive authority, which are covered by North Carolina’s Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act.
Fitch said the town’s “measures substantially interfere with and impede redress. They may also be indicative of obstruction of the truth-seeking mechanism.”
Finally, he ordered that there be no recrimination to any employee for failing to follow the revised town policy. A memo indicated the policy was to be implemented in January 2012.
Before the Voice published a memo from the town manager that cited the new policy, officials had denied it existed. The town hedged its words, saying no policy would prohibit an employee exposing matters of “public concern,” a phrase used by Fitch and open to broad interpretation.
The four officers subsequently filed a civil suit that was later dismissed. Two remained on the force.
But on May 29, supervisors showed up at the homes of police officers Joe Knight and Andy Ennis. They were relieved of their weapons and badges and suspended until interviews were conducted, followed by disciplinary hearings.
Knight was terminated and Ennis, in a move riddled with cliché, was transferred to animal control. Subsequently, he resigned from the police force.
Prior to May 29, a number of other town employees spoke to the Voice off the record about conditions within the department. Since the termination of Knight, most of those sources will no longer speak to the Voice.
Fitch was criticized by two local media outlets for his involvement in the dustup between the police officers and the town.
At the end of the day, the judge appears to have been more prophet than provocateur.
There was recrimination against the officers, and as far as the media’s role in the “truth seeking” mechanism is concerned, that too has been effectively silenced.
Fear is alive and well in Dare County and will continue until the public demands more. The media and four brave employees can only do so much.
And as one attorney reminded me, the First Amendment instructs Congress to make no law that would prevent the right of the people to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Employees are citizens, and in this case, their employer was the government.
If the First Amendment is good enough for Congress, it should be good enough for the town of Kill Devil Hills. The right of employees to petition the courts for redress should be sacrosanct.
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