Commissioners balk at paid security at courthouse meetings

Published 8:18 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Commissioners are weighing how to respond to a court order requiring paid security for any afterhours meeting at the Beaufort County Courthouse.

The order was issued by Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr. on July 18, and requires that three paid Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies or Allied Universal Securities Services security officers be present for meetings in the building taking place after normal courthouse hours. The order also calls for: parties submitting applications to use the courtrooms 20 days in advance; no use of Superior and District courtrooms during scheduled court weeks unless approved by the judge assigned to the courtroom; all persons entering the courthouse for scheduled meetings must be screen for weapons and contraband; and a clarification that Beaufort County officials, elected officials and political parties recognized by the Board of Elections will be allowed to use the Superior and District courtrooms.

“I personally don’t think these people are criminals, and I personally don’t think they need to be searched for contraband,” said Commissioner Hood Richardson. “It is unusual when a judge imposes security on a meeting because it should be up to the people having the meeting. … There’s no precedent for Sermons’ order.”

According to commissioners, the order stemmed from a mix-up with a recent Board of Commissioners public hearing.

Richardson put the item on the agenda because he says state law allows for the use of public buildings with these requirements.

Commissioner Jerry Langley, who has worked in and out of the courthouse during his 34-year career in law enforcement and probation, said he’d never witnessed any trouble after 6 p.m. that would require the presence of paid officers.

“There are never any problems, so I think this is a little extreme,” Langley said. “You’re taxing someone to use something they’re already paying taxes for.”

Commissioners seemed united in disagreeing with Sermons’ order; however, they did not agree on how to go about addressing it. While Richardson made a motion to ignore the order, and Commissioner Ed Booth seconded it, county attorney David Francisco strongly disagreed with taking that route when called on by Commissioner Gary Brinn.

“I would never recommend ignoring a court order. You can be held in contempt,” Francisco said.

Board Chairman Frankie Waters expressed reservations about ignoring the court order, pointing out that if commissioners are held in contempt, “we’re not going to have all seven commissioners locked up; it’s just the chairman.”

Waters ultimately declared no vote on the issue, and instructed Francisco to explore the county’s options for response.