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Who’s got the power? Manager, sheriff at odds

At left, Volusia County Manager Jim Dinneen. At right, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood.

At left, Volusia County Manager Jim Dinneen. At right, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood.

BEACON PHOTOS BY AL EVERSON AND MARSHA McLAUGHLIN

Sheriff says manager won’t let him make changes

 

A power struggle is taking place at the highest levels of Volusia County government.

County Manager Jim Dinneen and Sheriff Mike Chitwood are locked in an apparent feud over control of the manager’s decision-making authority.

Chitwood’s calls for Dinneen’s ouster have escalated the tension.

“I’m not going to comment,” Dinneen told The Beacon. “There’s no rift.”

After a moment of reflection, Dinneen, did, however, offer a few words about the conflict.

“Somehow this issue is getting twisted that it’s about me; it’s about the charter itself,” he said. “I’m not going to respond to things he’s saying.”

The county charter is a sort of local constitution that provides the framework for county government. It was approved by voters in 1970 and went into effect in 1971.

Chitwood says his ability to run the Sheriff’s Office is constrained by the charter and by Dinneen.

“I have found in my first couple of months here that making the most minor of changes has been a herculean effort,” the sheriff said.

He added, “I believe the county manager is trying to show me how powerful he is by slowing down the implementation of some of the changes that I need to put in place. I’m having a hard time dealing with being elected by an overwhelming majority of the people to be in charge — and I’m not in charge.

“I’m having to be beholden to the county manager,” Chitwood added.

He said Dinneen is blocking his initiatives to change policies and procedures.

County Council members contacted by The Beacon expressed support for Dinneen, rejecting suggestions — made by Chitwood in individual meetings with the County Council members — that the manager be fired.

“He wants the county manager to go. I told him it’s not his call; it’s ours. It is up to the County Council whether he stays or goes,” County Chair Ed Kelley said.

County Council Member Fred Lowry said he is not interested in terminating Dinneen, who has been county manager since 2006.

“I feel like Mr. Dinneen has done a good job,” Lowry added.

Lowry said he has “not been contacted” by Chitwood regarding a one-on-one conference.

Kelley said he is really uncertain why Chitwood and Dinneen are at odds.

“There is some reason that he and the county manager cannot get along,” Kelley said. “I don’t know what the real underlying issue is.”

Kelley and County Council Member Pat Patterson referenced bills filed in the Florida Legislature to make the sheriffs in charter counties constitutional officers once again. Volusia County Council members are lobbying for Volusia County to be exempted if that change is made.

Patterson described the bills as state efforts to take more power away from counties, including counties like Volusia, whose charters make their sheriff, elections supervisor and property appraiser elected department chiefs under the county manager’s control.

“I think it’s a local issue. It needs to be decided locally,” Patterson said.

A former state representative, Patterson is monitoring the bills in question. He said he was in Tallahassee last week meeting and talking with legislators.

“I don’t like the state telling each county how things are going to be done in each county,” Kelley said, adding “the destiny of Volusia County [belongs] in the hands of the voters of Volusia County.”

If a bill to restore constitutional status to the sheriff and other county elected posts becomes law, Patterson warned, those officials — sheriff, elections supervisor and property appraiser — could establish rival and costly bureaucracies.

“It would be a hit to the county budget, because you would have three people creating their own personnel department and doing their own purchasing, and it wouldn’t be under Central Services,” Patterson said. “People are telling me they don’t want to pay more.”

Lowry agreed.

“Then you’re going to have four HR departments, four legal departments, and that adds up,” he said.

Chitwood said he would like the County Council to ask voters whether the Sheriff’s Office should have more autonomy and authority.

“The County Council does have the power to put this on the ballot in 2018,” Chitwood said.

Failing that, the sheriff would not rule out organizing a petition campaign to collect at least 17,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

- Al Everson, al@beacononlinenews.com


What the sheriff wants to change

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood gave three examples of changes he wants to make that haven’t passed muster with the county manager:

• The first is “a fingerprint-incentive plan.”

“If a deputy goes to the scene of a burglary or a car break-in and works really hard and gets a fingerprint or DNA, and that leads to an arrest, they should get a day off, and that day off has no fiscal impact on the county,” Chitwood said.

• “The second issue has to do with us spending 3,000 man-hours a year serving arrest paperwork in the jail. So many times, a prisoner has a warrant for his arrest. I have to pull a deputy out of DeLand and send him to the jail. That paperwork could be served by a corrections officer,” Chitwood said. “This is still on hold because Jim Dinneen wants to vet it further.”

• No. 3 is Chitwood’s ability to keep his legal adviser close by. “When we are about to implement some new policies or crime-fighting strategies, we should have legal input and that the attorney should be on the fourth floor with the sheriff, and not somewhere else in the building,” he said.

Chitwood said his request to put his attorney in his own suite of offices was denied.

“It’s ludicrous,” he said.


Volusia among 20 Florida counties with charters

While County Manager Jim Dinneen and Sheriff Mike Chitwood are at odds over who is in charge, they do agree the county’s 46-year-old home-rule charter is a source of their conflict.

A quick course or tutorial in the charter government is in order:

The Florida Constitution now in effect was ratified by the state’s voters in 1968. The constitution provides for counties to adopt a limited amount of autonomy, or self-rule.

Under that state constitution, a group of reform-minded citizens crafted a Volusia County charter that established the council-manager form of government, similar to that used in many cities in Florida and around the country.

A majority of Volusia County’s voters approved the home-rule charter in a referendum June 30, 1970, and the charter went into effect Jan. 1, 1971. The charter is a sort of county constitution.

The old five-member County Commission, whose members were elected by districts and wielded both legislative and executive powers, was replaced by a seven-member County Council.

The charter mandates a strict separation of powers; namely, designating the County Council as a legislative and policymaking body and vesting the administrative and executive powers in the county manager, whom the council hires and fires.

The charter prohibits County Council members from involving themselves or interfering in the daily and routine operations and activities of the county manager and the administrative branch. Violating the separation of powers could subject an elected council member to removal from office.

In most Florida counties, the sheriff, elections supervisor and property appraiser are constitutional officers, meaning they are actually state officials elected locally. In a non-charter county, a sheriff, for example, may appeal directly to the governor if he or she objects to the budget set by the county commission.

Not so in Volusia County. The charter makes these former constitutional officers department heads within the county hierarchy.

Florida is divided into 67 counties; 20 of them are charter counties.

— Al Everson

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