Butler judge orders deputy sheriff to be posted in county commissioners office

| Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012, 12:56 p.m.

Relations among the Butler County commissioners have so deteriorated that a judge has ordered a deputy sheriff to provide security in the commissioners' office, which one political observer called an unprecedented move.

“I've heard commissioners demean each other, but I've never heard you had to call in an officer of the law to make sure the county commissioners don't engage in something that might be unlawful towards each other,” said Moe Coleman, a longtime University of Pittsburgh social and political scientist. “That's pretty rough.”

President Judge Thomas Doerr said that he's received reports of minority Commissioner James Eckstein, a Democrat, shouting at Republican commissioners Bill McCarrier and A. Dale Pinkerton and their staffs. Also, he said, commissioners' meetings have become more contentious, and he's watched tapes of the meetings showing verbal battles between Eckstein and the public.

“The public debates have become much more heated,” Doerr said. “It's come to the point where I believe it could potentially lead to a breach of the peace.”

Eckstein, who was attending a County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania conference in Hershey, laughed when told Tuesday about Doerr's court order.

“What, do they think I'm going to attack Dale?” Eckstein said. “This is like Kiddie Land. They're doing this because they can't think of anything else to do to me.”

Eckstein said he shouted at McCarrier within the last several days. He said McCarrier is shutting him out of the process to pick a new county solicitor. In an email obtained by the Tribune-Review, Eckstein said he wanted his administrative assistant, Margaret Abersold, involved in the selection process, but McCarrier refused.

“I asked him, ‘What will you do if I come to the (selection committee) meeting?' ” Eckstein said.

Doerr said the commissioners did not ask him for security and that he did not consult them before issuing his order late Monday.

McCarrier said Doerr told him a couple of weeks ago that he “feared for the commissioners' safety, and my reply was, ‘I appreciate your concern.' ”

Controller Jack McMillin said he's never seen an order like Doerr's in his 23 years in county government.

“You can cut the tension in that office with a knife,” McMillin said.

Several employees within the office declined comment.

Longtime solicitor Julie Graham and Bill O'Donnell, the former county chief clerk/director of administration, each cited difficulties within county government since Eckstein took office in January as a reason for their retirements.

Pinkerton sued Eckstein this summer, accusing him of falsely spreading the rumor that Pinkerton had awarded a raise to the county personnel director in exchange for her state trooper husband fixing a drunken driving arrest — an arrest that Pinkerton said never happened.

Pinkerton said Doerr didn't consult with him.

“Personally, I don't feel it's necessary, but it certainly makes my wife (Millie) feel better,” Pinkerton said.

In October, the executive committee of the Butler County Democratic Party censured Eckstein, saying he ignored a fire drill in the government building.

In September McCarrier threatened to have Eckstein removed from a public meeting by a deputy sheriff because Eckstein had signed up to speak as a member of the public but argued he didn't have to hold to the three-minute time limit set for such speakers because he was a commissioner.

“The manner of election of commissioners sets up a certain dynamic contention” of majority and minority commissioners, said Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “We've had counties where there are closely held beliefs, and differences arise and personalities figure in to that, as well.”

Doerr, a registered Republican, said the three county commissioners could vote for him to reconsider his order. He said the sheriff should implement it as soon as possible, hoping for next week.

Sheriff Michael Slupe said he likely will ask the county salary board next week for at least one additional deputy. Slupe said his deputies aren't regularly stationed inside any other county offices.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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