New sheriff cutting staff

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Shortly after he was appointed sheriff of Putnam County on Saturday, Steve Fenwick said he would be making some changes in the department.

Apparently, one of those changes was the front office staff.

On Sunday, four employees were let go -- Becky Wallace, who had been the jail matron for 17 years; Barbara "Chip" Johnson, who had been her assistant for 11 years; and jail officers Ashley Butler and Barbara Meyers, who had been with the department for six and three years, respectively.

"I didn't feel good about it," Fenwick said. "But I did what I felt had to be done."

The women who were fired performed a variety of sheriff's department duties, such as keeping books on the money in inmate accounts and preparing tax warrants, sheriff's sales, accident reports and department payroll.

Wallace, Johnson, Butler and Meyers were notified on their firings via letters, which were hand-delivered to them Sunday evening by Sheriff's Deputy Ronnie Campbell. The letters said "with every new administration, there is a need for change," Wallace said.

The women all went straight to the sheriff's department on Sunday to talk to Fenwick.

"I had no inkling this was coming," Wallace said. "Doug Nally was the one who did most of the talking at the meeting ... (Fenwick) didn't really have much to say. He just sat there with his head down. Doug just said, 'We need a change.'"

Johnson said no reason was given for the terminations.

"We had heard rumors it was going to happen," she said. "I want people to know that our audits were always 100 percent accurate. I don't know why people think it's OK to just come in and ruin people's lives. This makes us look like we're bad people. I don't understand. I feel like this was all premeditated and planned long before it happened."

Wallace didn't understand the reasoning for the terminations, either..

"If you could say we'd done this, we'd done this or we'd done this, I could accept it," she said.

Wallace thinks she and her colleagues may have been let go because her husband, Danny, a Putnam County Sheriff's Department deputy, was in the running for the sheriff's job, and they supported him in his bid.

"I feel the only reason this was done is because we were backing Danny," she said.

Wallace's job is governed by the department's merit board. She does not think her firing was legal, and plans to consult an attorney for advice, as does Johnson.

Butler was offered a job in the jail division, but declined, Fenwick said. So far two of the open positions have been filled -- one by Ashley O'Hair, who had worked with the department briefly in the past, and one by Vova Johnson, who was a part-time jail officer and is now full-time.

"Two have been replaced and two haven't," Fenwick said. "I look to fill the other two in the next couple of days."

Fenwick also appointed Doug Nally chief deputy. Nally replaced Virgil Lanning in that capacity.

"Virgil's gone back onto the road," Fenwick said. "He's a good officer."

Fenwick said Monday at the department was "chaotic."

Although Fenwick understands the terminations and duty shuffling may have caused some hard feelings, he pointed out that, in his estimation, he was within his rights as sheriff to make the changes.

"Who the matrons and the chief deputy are is to the sheriff's discretion," he said.

On Tuesday, Fenwick said things at the sheriff's department were going "not too bad, really ... we're going as usual."

"There are just so many things we need to work on," he said. "It's unbelievable how behind we are on some things."