published Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Catoosa County officials side with sheriff against Larry Black

Larry Black appeal
Larry Black appeal
Catoosa Decision on Larry Black Appeal
Catoosa Decision on Larry Black Appeal

Five months after winning a bitterly fought run-off election, Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk took away his rival's badge, gun and county-issued 2011 Dodge Charger.

And now Catoosa County commissioners agree Larry Black, former Lookout Mountain Drug Task Force commander, won't get them back.

Sisk, who defeated Black in the August 2012 runoff, swore in all his officers on Jan. 1 -- all except Black. This meant Black now worked for the sheriff's office as a civilian but with the rank of sergeant detective. Black had filed an appeal with the commission against Sisk, complaining about his new position as a ranked officer without arresting power.

Last week, the Catoosa County Commission listened to Black's complaint that he had been unfairly targeted because he ran against Sisk.

Sisk defended his actions, saying he didn't demote Black but found a position for him in the sheriff's office.

"I made the assignments based on what was best for the agency and for the service of the community," he said Wednesday. "It wasn't personal."

On Wednesday, commissioners decided to deny making any recommendation for the sheriff to reinstate Black.

"Those decisions are best left to the duly elected sheriff," the five commissioners wrote. "The board will not 'second guess' his decision."

The commission no longer has the authority to tell the sheriff what to do with employees, based on a change in the sheriff's office merit system in 2011, Catoosa County Chairman Keith Greene said. The commission only can make a recommendation, he said.

The board decided against even that, several commissioners said, because they didn't find that Black's appeal was merited.

Last summer Black, who has a 30-year on-and-off history with the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office, ran against Sisk and three other opponents, including County Manager Mike Helton, for the sheriff's job.

After Black won the most votes, nearly twice as many as Sisk, the two officers went head to head in a runoff. Sisk won with 55 percent of the votes.

At the May 22 hearing, commissioners were told Black had said he wouldn't work for the new sheriff. But before Sisk was sworn into office in January, Black told the sheriff he wanted to continue working at the sheriff's office.

Sisk told the commissioners that he then told Black he wouldn't be sworn in as a deputy, but would be assigned an unsworn desk job as a crime analyst. But Black would keep his same pay -- about $43,000 -- and his rank.

In a written appeal, Black said he pleaded with the sheriff's office to let him work nights or weekend shifts and keep his sworn enforcement position, but he was denied it. When he lost his sworn certification, he also lost his retirement option through the Peace Officials Annuity and Benefit fund, an extra form of retirement sworn officers can opt into.

Black then challenged the sheriff's decision by filing an appeal, citing the sheriff's office personnel policies and merit system.

The policy states an employee can't be fired or receive a cut in pay or rank without cause. Black said he had a loss in status and loss of use of his county vehicle.

Sisk said he didn't have to give a reason for the position because the move wasn't a demotion.

This was Black's last administrative remedy, his attorney Michael Raulston said. He has other legal options, but it's too early to say if any will be taken, Raulston said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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