Request turns into debate between auditor and prosecutor PDF Print E-mail
Written by George Browning   
Wednesday, 28 June 2017 08:48

A request by Washington County Prosecutor Dustin Houchin to keep the same phone numbers on mobile phones being moved to his office’s plan at the County Commissioner’s regular meeting June 20, sparked a debate about the county personnel handbook.

Houchin has not signed the handbook and neither has employees and that seems to be causing a conflict with County Auditor Randall Bills.

In moving those phones to the new plan, Houchin said he needs approval from the commissioners to keep the same phone numbers on those phones. He said he has made the request to the auditor and it hasn’t been done.

“All the mobile phones in the county are under one plan except for the phones in my office,” Houchin said. “On the criminal side, I carry my own plan. There is a variety of reasons for that. Adult Protective Services was not on that plan. My intentions is to move those phones over to my plan in my office.

“I don’t need permission to do that, but I do need authorization (from the commissioners) to keep the same phone numbers. I am just here requesting that if I move that plan, I can keep the same phone numbers.”

At that point, Bills brought up the issue of the employee handbook.

“. . . That also brings up some other issues, I know, that are pretty touchy with you,” Bills said to Houchin, “as far as your employees, who is employed by the state and who is employed by the county, in who you’re going to allow to be under the county end.

“That needs to be noted there, that you are getting public funds, whether they are by the taxpayer or the state, through the county. If we are going to be paying your employees with county funds they need to abide by county rules and statutes. It’s no different than state policy that you are supposed to abide by.”

Houchin said he and Bills have had the handbook discussion multiple times and he maintains that his office, and the offices of the county judges, must be operated independently.

County Attorney Dustin Howard assured the commissioners that Houchin has provided legal precedent for that stance.

“Dustin (Houchin) and I have talked before and he provided me some legal authority for that position,” Howard said. “I researched and couldn’t find anything contrary to what Dustin provided me. I don’t think the county executive body can compel the prosecutor’s office to abide by the handbook.”

Bills continued to push the issue and that’s when things escalated.

“The issue is he (Bills) won’t do it (change the phone numbers),” Houchin said, “but you are (the commissioners) are in charge. You are the executive body of the county. I am asking you to do it. I am going to change these phones no matter what, but it would be a courtesy if you would let me keep the same phone number. That seems reasonable, but if you don’t, I am going to change them anyway!”

Houchin went on to explain why it’s important for his office to remain independent from the authority of all county offices.

“I know it’s confusing,” Houchin said, “but it’s the law. The reason it’s set up that way, my office and the judges, is because we have to have independent authority. We can’t have the commissioners, the auditor, or any council have power over our offices. For instance, if the auditor should happen to be under criminal investigation, he should not have powers over my office to do things like have power over my phones. The rules are set up that way.

“I am not going to relinquish the authority of the Washington County Prosecutor’s Office to any other agency. I like you all, I respect you, I want to work with you, I follow the county personnel rules, mine are not different, my employees abide by the same time as everyone else, but I can’t let it bind my office. I won’t do that. It’s not fair to future prosecutors, it’s not fair to the administration of justice.”

Houchin said that stance always causes problems when he needs to go through the auditor’s office to get something done.

Bills continued to push the issue and Howard reiterated that Houchin is not out of bonds in operating his office independently.

“It’s me, Larry Medlock and Frank Newkirk,” Houchin said. “Do you think the three of us are conspiring to do something wrong or is the problem here the auditor?”

Commissioner President Phillip Marshall stopped the back and forth between Houchin and Bills and moved the conversation back to the issue of the phones.

Commissioner Rick Roberts made the motion to allow Houchin to move the phone numbers over as he sees fit.

Commissioner Preston Shell seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.

In other business

Houchin said his office has been awarded $36,000 for a new employee.

He told the commissioners at their regular meeting on June 20 the position will be a case worker.

Houchin said he plans to bring that person on, once the money is made available.

“The new money won’t be available until July 1,” he said. “I’ll be working those things through the process.”