UNION — A long-time employee of the Union County Clerk of Court’s Office who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Clerk of Court says she was fired from her job and doesn’t know why.
In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Melanie Lawson said she was fired Wednesday morning from her job as Family Court Deputy Clerk by Union County Clerk of Court Freddie Gault.
Lawson, who had worked in the Clerk of Court’s Office since 1992, ran for Clerk of Court in the Nov. 6 general election and was defeated by Gault.
When contacted about Lawson’s dismissal, Gault declined to comment because it is a personnel matter.
“It is a personnel issue and I have no comment on a personnel issue,” Gault said. “Any personnel issue in my office I do not comment on. All I can say is that as of yesterday morning she is no longer with the Clerk of Court’s Office.”
When she decided to run for Clerk of Court, Lawson said she conformed with county policy regarding employees running for public office.
“I followed county policy. It says ‘in certain circumstances involving real or potential conflicts, employees who run for public office may be placed on an unpaid leave of absence until after the election,’” Lawson said. “It says you may be placed on an unpaid leave of absence until after the election, not that you will be. It then goes on to say ‘If an employee is placed on leave of absence his employment will terminate upon his election to a partisan public office.’
“I followed policy, I set up a hearing with council, I went before council and council didn’t give me an answer,” she said. “The next morning, Mr. Sinclair said it wasn’t up to council, it was up to Freddie.”
Lawson said she then sent a letter to Gault dated March 21 asking whether he would put her on unpaid leave or allow her to continue working on a part-time basis for the duration of the election.
“I sent a letter to Freddie and I put ‘Dear Freddie, as you are aware I went before council asking if I filed to run for political office would I be placed on leave,’” Lawson said. “‘Per county supervisor, the decision is not left up to council but is your decision. I am asking if I file will you be placing me on leave or can I work a couple of days a week due to the workload in the office.’”
Lawson said Gault replied to her in a letter dated March 30, the day she filed to run for Clerk of Court.
“He said ‘You have informed me today that you have filed to run for election for the Office of Clerk of Court,’” Lawson said. “As I told you on March 9, 2012 and March 22, 2012 when we spoke that you will not be allowed to work with the Clerk of Court’s Office during the duration of the election process. I am placing you on unpaid leave today.’”
Lawson said the next time she communicated with Gault was the morning after the election.
“I called him the next morning and congratulated him and he told me he would be getting back with me,” Lawson said. “He did, he called me this past Friday morning and he told me he wanted to meet with me in his office Wednesday at 9.”
Lawson said her meeting with Gault was the first time she’d been back to the office since being placed on unpaid leave.
It was during this meeting that Lawson said she learned she was being fired.
“He told me he was going to have to let me go,” Lawson said. “He said he had to look out for the best interests of the office. He said this is not personal.”
Lawson said she has no idea why she was dismissed given her work record.
“I don’t know what’s the reason for why I was fired,” Lawson said. “In my 23 years of service to Union County I never had an oral or written reprimand.”
Lawson said after being fired she went and filed for her unemployment and is now considering her next course of action.
“I’m just weighing my options as to what I need to do,” Lawson said. “I just want anybody else who may be working within the county and is considering running to look at what happened to me. I followed county policy and I still got fired.”
As an elected official, Gault has the authority to hire and fire the employees of his office according to Union County Supervisor Tommy Sinclair.
Sinclair quoted a letter from the county’s attorney he presented to council earlier this year about a ruling from the S.C. Supreme Court that affirmed the authority of elected officials to hire and fire employees within their office. He said the attorney pointed out that the state statute “specifically excludes employees of elected officials from the hiring/firing authority of council and from the county grievance procedure.”
This was based on what the attorney said was the Eargle case out of Horry County which Sinclair said was brought by the county’s clerk of court against the county council. Sinclair said the clerk of court sued the county over control of her employees and the Supreme Court rule in her favor affirming elected officials as the final authority in the hiring and firing of their employees.
Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org