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Political hat gets W.Va. deputy canned

November 01, 2000

Political hat gets W.Va. deputy canned



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A Berkeley County deputy must be terminated from his job because of his decision to wear a political hat during a golf charity tournament earlier this summer, a Civil Service Commission ruled Wednesday.

At the same time, the Berkeley County Deputy Sheriff's Civil Service Commission requested that Sheriff Ronald Jones delay terminating Cpl. Wilbur Johnson to give Johnson an opportunity to appeal the decision.

Despite its ruling, the commission did not feel totally comfortable with its decision and wants to give Johnson a chance to appeal so "another set of eyes" can look at the case, said Martinsburg attorney Paul G. Taylor, who represents the Civil Service Commission.

Barry Beck, Johnson's attorney, said he will appeal the case to Berkeley County Circuit Court.

"Corporal Johnson is obviously disappointed with this decision. We think the commission misinterpreted the statute," Beck said.

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Beck has defended Johnson's actions, saying nothing prohibits a deputy from expressing opinions about a candidate.

During a Civil Service Commission hearing last month, Beck presented passages from a Berkeley County employees handbook that indicated county workers are free to voice their opinion about politics.

Beck also highlighted rules for professional conduct for county employees and said the policies say nothing about a county employee being prohibited from giving political opinions.

Jones contends state law prohibits deputies from engaging in any political activity, and about the only such activity in which deputies can engage is voting.

Johnson wore a baseball cap inscribed "W. Randy Smith for Sheriff" while he was off duty playing golf at the Berkeley County Sheriff's Association charity tournament July 10 at the Stonebridge Golf Club in Martinsburg.

Jones said he requested permission from the Civil Service Commission to terminate Johnson's employment because other deputies at the event were concerned the incident might have given the appearance they were supporting Smith.

In its ruling, the Civil Service Commission said it wrestled with the question of whether Johnson's "passive wearing of the cap" constituted political activity.

The commission in its ruling said it "cannot help but conclude that, given the fact that Johnson was aware that political activity was prohibited, and he was specifically cautioned about the cap on the day he wore same, he should have known better and merely removed the cap and defused the entire situation. He did not do this," the commission said in its ruling.

Johnson's immediate supervisor told Johnson during the charity event that wearing the cap "may not be a good idea."

Jones could not say whether he would honor the commission's request to delay Johnson's job termination until Johnson has a chance to appeal the case.

Jones said he is exploring his options with his attorney, Charles F. Printz Jr.

"That's all I will say about it," Jones said.

Johnson, a 12-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, declined to comment.

State law allows Johnson 90 days to appeal the decision to Circuit Court, the Civil Service Commission said.

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