Sheriff’s deputies were called to restore calm Wednesday in the finance department at the Jackson County Courthouse as the battle between County Executive Frank White and other elected officials worsened.
Finding himself caught in the middle of the dispute, a mid-level county employee was put on unpaid leave Wednesday for refusing to follow what he said he believed to be unlawful orders from one of White’s top aides.
Scott Jacoby, the deputy director of finance, was notified of his uncertain status in a memo from Ed Stoll, the chief administrative officer. Stoll said Jacoby was under investigation for being “unwilling to perform the essential function of your position, which could result in a violation of federal law.”
The alleged wrongdoing?
Jacoby refused to perform what he saw as two “unlawful acts.”
First, he refused to transfer money out of the county’s anti-drug sales tax fund, COMBAT, without the approval of County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. The legislature recently stripped White’s authority over COMBAT and gave the prosecutor’s office control of the agency that funds law enforcement and groups fighting violence and drug abuse. Stoll told him to make the transfers anyway.
The second unlawful act, Jacoby said, was Stoll’s instruction that he use COMBAT money and other funding sources to pay the salaries of White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, and several other people on White’s staff. Jacoby stressed that the legislature had eliminated those jobs in the 2018 budget passed last month.
“Associates should not have to work in a hostile environment with fear of disciplinary action taken upon them because they are unwilling to perform an unlawful act,” Jacoby said in an email to Stoll and copied to other county officials.
White insists that the legislature was wrong to transfer COMBAT to Baker’s office and maintains that he can shift money around to pay salaries in his office.
So with payday approaching for Clifford and the others whose jobs are in limbo, Jacoby found himself in a bad spot.
In the email he sent out Wednesday that precipitated Stoll’s decision to put him on leave, Jacoby said it was unfair to order him to defy the legislature’s wishes.
Scott Burnett, chairman of the legislature, said Jacoby was just trying to do his job. Burnett said he spent much of Wednesday afternoon trying to sort things out.
“They’re trying to force Scott Jacoby’s assistants to sign the requisitions so that they’ll get paid on Friday from COMBAT,” Burnett told The Star. “The women in the office are so upset, they’re crying, they’re screaming. I’ve got two sheriff’s deputies in there now in finance trying to calm them down.”
Sheriff Mike Sharp said the deputies were brought in “to put an end to the yelling,” but there was no violence.
At Monday’s regular meeting of the county legislature, Baker complained about White’s refusal to honor the legislature’s wishes and turn over control of COMBAT to her.
In a joint statement, Baker, Burnett and Sharp asked White to put Jacoby back to work.
“We are imploring Jackson County Executive Frank White and Caleb Clifford, his chief of staff, to immediately reinstate this official who was only trying to follow the law,” they said.
They also asked White to refrain from disciplining others who refuse to follow county ordinances.
“You have no authority to harm public servants who come to this courthouse to do the real hard work of this county,” Baker said. “They are not political footballs.”
In response, White told Burnett, Sharp and Baker to back off.
“Let me be clear,” he said in a written statement, it’s time for the chair of the legislature, sheriff and prosecutor to stop trying to run my administration.”
White’s refusal to cede control rests on the legal opinion of a private law firm paid for by taxpayers that claims the legislature overreached its authority when it transferred COMBAT and its $20 million budget to the prosecutor.
County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon has not issued an official opinion, but he said in a Jan. 5 memo that the legislature’s authority to transfer COMBAT to Baker’s control is “questionable at best.”
The legislature hired outside legal representation on Tuesday. Both sides agree that a judge will likely decide the matter. A court action could come next week.
At Monday’s meeting, Legislator Crystal Williams said she was frustrated by the the growing inability of both sides to find common agreement on this issue and others.
“We are going through a pissing match,” she said. “I am completely losing my patience with this.”