Shawn Terris, an employee of the Santa Barbara County CEO’s office who was working in the Sheriff’s Department, was suspended for five days-40 hours-for insubordination last September. Nearly ten months later, on July 20 and 21, the county’s Civil Service Commission heard her appeal of the Sheriff’s disciplinary action. In the basement of the County Administration Building, in a small conference room containing no more than a dozen people, the Commission met with Terris and her attorney, James Cordes, as well as Deputy County Counsel Victoria Tuttle, to hear two days of testimony regarding the events leading up to Terris’s suspension.
Terris was deemed insubordinate by the Sheriff’s Department for sending two emails-a composite total of 18 words, as Cordes emphasized many times throughout the hearing-to the then-president of the Santa Barbara County Management Association, James Scott. A more detailed picture was painted by the testimonies of the five witnesses: Sheriff Bill Brown; Detective Greg Sorenson, the Internal Affairs investigator who was put on Terris’s case; Robert MacLeod, the county’s chief of employee relations; Scott; and Terris herself. All of the parties involved-as well as County Counsel Sarah McElhinney, Lieutenant Steve Robel, and MacLeod-stayed in the room through the entire two-day affair.
According to testimony, in August of last year Terris conducted a telephone survey of county managers, using her vacation time and her own telephone, asking if, among other things, the individuals contacted were interested in creating a bargaining unit to represent the managers. Later in the month, on August 29, Terris was advised by her superior, Sheriff Bill Brown, in a private meeting, to focus on her work duties and follow the policies and rules of the county and the department. At 5:31 that evening, Ferris contacted managers via their county emails from her home computer during what she said she thought were non-work hours, due to the county’s 9-to-5 schedule. On September 16, Sheriff Brown sent Terris a letter ordering her to cease her non-work-related use of the county email system and restrict her organizing efforts to non-duty hours in non-county facilities to non-county email addresses on pain of discipline. He attached and cited county and department email policies. Then, on October 2 and 6, Terris sent the emails to Scott for which she was later punished with a suspension, for insubordination, due to what the Sheriff’s Department regarded as deliberate disobedience.
“We believe that this issue is very straightforward,” County Counsel Tuttle argued, going on to say that “Ms.Terris was insubordinate to a direct order from the Sheriff.” Cordes disagreed and described much of the situation as “ambiguous.” The cruxes of Cordes’s argument were apparent contradictions in Sheriff Brown’s orders, discrepancies between email usage policies to which Terris was directed for clarification of those orders, and the fact that insubordination requires conscious defiance of an order-Terris testified to having believed that she was complying with Sheriff Brown’s orders and the email usage policies. Additionally, Cordes argued that Sheriff Brown’s orders were illegal due to the fact that they demanded Terris to cease all non-work use of county email, which was not, she argued, the nature of the email usage policies he cited. Cordes said that in his brief to the commission and Hearing Officer Terrence Bonham, he intends to include examples of cases in which it was ruled illegal to “completely bar” a particular form of communication. Cordes also hopes to prove to the commission through a large body of email evidence that the only email not allowed by the Sheriff’s Department was an email from Shawn Terris about organizing.
In her closing remarks, Tuttle explained, “This is not an attempt to target an individual for 18 words of email.” She said that the case for insubordination is “plain and simple” and “pretty serious in a paramilitary organization” such as the Sheriff’s Department. She said Terris should be aware of its seriousness considering her experience as a U.S. Marine.
The commission was made up of 5th District Representative and Chair Martin Mariscal, 1st District Representative and Vice Chair Richard Solomon, 4th District Representative Ronald Nanning, and 3rd District Representative Sheila Federman. (Second District Representative Robert Donerson was on vacation and unable to attend the hearing.) Both Tuttle and Cordes thanked the Commission for their time and will be submitting briefs during the coming month. The Commission will meet to make a decision after the briefs are received. Terris expects that the decision will be made after the Commission’s usual monthly meeting on September 17. She pointed out that this case not only “involves serious and complex legal issues” but is something of a “political hot potato.”