TOP STORY OF THE DAY Brought to you FREE by WICU: Merit Board needs more information about deputies’ complaints

Friday, October 9, 2020
IVY JACOBS PHOTO - Merit Board President Dr. Ron Leach Talked to the crowd during Monday’s meeting at the Clay County Justice Center. The topic of interest was an official complaint of “conduct unbecoming an officer” filed against Chief Deputy Josh Clarke in September.

The Merit Board for the Clay County Sheriff’s deputies made a decision – sort of – Monday night during an official meeting regarding complaints about Chief Deputy Josh Clarke: They need more information.

Merit Board President Dr. Ron Leach asked merit deputies present at the meeting if they were still filing an official complaint. They confirmed they wanted to proceed.

The merit board members - including Ron Sclight, Tom Telgemeyer, Kim Jackson, and John Tilley - agreed they also need legal advice, which is why what happens next will be determined by communication with their attorney later this week.

IVY JACOBS PHOTO - Merit Board President Dr. Ron Leach Talked to the crowd during Monday’s meeting at the Clay County Justice Center.

One of two things will happen, according to Leach:

1 – Sheriff Paul Harden has already taken appropriate action on the matter, and no further action will be required. Harden launched an internal investigation into alleged complaints during a meeting with deputies. Clarke was put on administrative leave by Harden on Aug. 31.

The Sheriff notified deputies of his subsequent findings in a letter two weeks later, stating:

“To be clear, I did not find any conduct for which discipline or termination was an appropriate recommendation to the merit board, and so I do not anticipate any further action based on the matters reviewed during my investigation.”

Harden recognized not all of the deputies would agree with his decision: “Nevertheless, as the Clay County Sheriff, I have a responsibility to the people of this county and to this office to be fair to all concerned... I consider this matter closed.”

Harden confirmed at the meeting he reprimanded Clarke, but he did not recommend discipline or termination before restoring the Chief Deputy to full-duty status Sept. 14. (The chief deputy is an appointed position in the department.)

2 – An official complaint has been filed with the merit board that warrants resolution, which would lead to an Executive Session to gather further information. The board members said the complaints brought forth by the merit deputies appear to be upsetting.

A formal letter of complaint was slid under the Sheriff’s door on the morning of Sept. 14, the same day of the merit board meeting. (The meeting did not have enough board members present to create a quorum, but the letter was accepted by Leach, who then made sure other members were advised of the situation.)

Besides allegations of Clarke creating a hostile work environment, the letter outlined instances of “conduct unbecoming an officer,” including:

Threatening physical harm to a merit deputy in the presence of another merit deputy.

Verbally attacking a merit deputy over a political sign in that merit deputy’s friend’s yard. Then approaching said friend in a public place and questioning them.

Kicking the chair a merit deputy was sitting in, saying they had one coming, with Clarke allegedly knew the deputy had prior back problems.

Inappropriate communications with a wife of a merit deputy.

Merit Board member John Tilley voiced concern the official complaint included no details, like names of victims or witnesses, dates, times, or places of the allegations.

(Of the two complaints filed by the deputies, neither has the deputies’ signatures officially filing the complaint either. A “Letter of No Confidence” (dated Aug. 19) to the Sheriff is signed by “Clay County Sheriff’s Office Merit Officers.” The second (dated Aug. 29), a “Written Complaint on Merit Deputy Joshua D. Clarke, acting Chief Deputy” addressed to Leach, is signed “The Merit Deputies of Clay County Sheriff’s Office.”)

Tilley was also concerned about discussing the complaint without Clarke present and unable to provide information.

“I guess I would feel more comfortable with those people who are accusing Chief Clarke of something, to have the opportunity to make those charges verbally in front of Chief Clarke,” said Tilley, who believes it is prudent to get all the information the board can. “I am in favor of what the Sheriff has done to this point. And beyond this point, well, allowing Chief Deputy Clarke to account for his past failings and be a more effective leader. But if we are bound to do something else, then we are bound to accept the charges, and put some names with them.”

Tilley said people should be allowed to give testimony in front of Clarke, and Clarke can respond at the same time. Determining the fact from accusations or rumors will be vital in the process, which will occur in an Executive Session and will not be open to the public.

“We’ve established there are some problems that need to be corrected, but we aren’t moving to correct them,” said Tilley, who said the deputies, Sheriff, and the merit board would watching Clarke’s progress in the future. “That helps dictate what we do next. Just to take off right now and lop off Chief Deputy Clarke’s head, I’m not for that. No.”

So, the merit board members supported Kim Jackson’s motion to set a tentative Executive Session “to gather more information” on the calendar in the next few days, awaiting the findings of an upcoming meeting with legal representation before tabling the matter and ending the meeting.

The board confirmed attorneys would be provided the official complaints written on behalf of merit deputies in August and presented in September, and Sheriff Paul Harden’s letter of finding after the internal investigation to the deputies.

The Brazil Times will update this story when official information is made available.

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